President Trump dragged Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach across the finish line in the recent Republican primary for governor. It remains to be seen whether this is merely a Pyrrhic victory or an indication that Trump's nationalist twist on conservatism will survive and thrive beyond his presidency.
Trump famously beat 16 other candidates to win the Republican presidential nomination and then went on to win the White House. Many of his imitators, lacking his celebrity and media savvy, have fared markedly less well. A few, like perennial Paul Ryan challenger Paul Nehlen, who went down to defeat again on Tuesday, have completely gone off the deep end, trafficking in anti-Semitism.
For Trumpism to outlive Trump, it needs winning candidates and examples of successful governance (something Trump himself has yet to fully provide). Kobach, a favorite of immigration hardliners across the country, is a fairly likely successor.
Kobach has a grasp of policy that Trump conspicuously lacks. He has crafted legislation aimed at curbing illegal immigration in multiple states, advancing the Trump agenda back when the president was still a reality TV star. He has actual political and governing experience. And Kansas is a Republican enough state that this is a race Kobach should win.
Then again, it's also a losable race. Kobach is a much riskier general election candidate than Gov. Jeff Colyer, whom he narrowly beat in the primary. In a Democratic wave year, that could put even Kansas in play.
Sam Brownback, the previous governor, has already used Kansas as a model for his rather strict brand of conservatism. The results were not encouraging. So Republicans were at some risk in the gubernatorial election already.
Kobach shares some of Trump's liabilities too. His immigration statutes have been challenged in court, among other things for promoting racial profiling. He backed the president's dubious assertion that enough illegal immigrants unlawfully cast ballots in the 2016 election to account for Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote. He was vice chairman of Trump's disastrous "voter integrity" commission, disbanded for lack of state participation. His connections to people with illiberal views on race have been the subject of scrutiny.
Now, Kobach isn't wrong on immigration. Lower immigration levels really could alleviate some of the burdens faced by Americans on the lower end of the income scale, even if the idea is as controversial as ever and increasingly attacked as racist. But Kobach's fixation on voter ID laws is less well founded, as there is reason to believe the its negative effects on minority voting outweigh the benefits of curbing isolated examples of fraud.
Taking all of this under consideration, Kobach has an opportunity available to few others. Most Republican candidates are still running on pre-Trump platforms. The exceptions, like Virginia Senate candidate Corey Stewart, have even more troubling associations and much worse electoral prospects. Being a governor establishes credibility greater than other elected offices without all the complexities of a legislative voting record.
If Kobach wins the governorship of Kansas, it is not all that difficult to imagine him as a national successor to post-Trump Trumpism.
The Republican Party is taking a hit because of Trump's toxicity, some of which has to do with his policies but mostly because of him personally. It is not doing much to build on what Trump showed them to be possible: growing the party in the industrial Midwest and expanding its appeal with working-class whites.
Long term, it would obviously be better to enhance the GOP's appeal to minorities and millennials, among other ascendant demographics. Trump and Kobach are not the candidates to do that. But unlike the authors of the discarded post-2012 Republican "autopsy," Trump has demonstrated he can actually win the voters he is targeting.
It is less clear that other Republicans can copy Trump's example. It's entirely possible that the party will experience the same problem Democrats suffered under Barack Obama. The voters repulsed by the president will turn out in large numbers even when he is not on the ballot, while the difference-making voters who helped him win the White House will stay home.
A different kind of Republican will be needed to resolve that tension. Kobach may not be the one. But there are few candidates in the running this year better positioned to at least try.