Kris Kobach wins while losing elections
What his new campaign says about the post-Trump GOP
Kris Kobach is back. Again.
The former Kansas secretary of state — an unabashedly Trumpist Republican known nationally both for his pricey anti-immigration activism and a fruitless obsession with voter fraud — announced last week he will run to become the state's attorney general in 2022.
Kansas politics are about the last thing on his mind, though. He has his eyes on Washington, D.C.
"Far and away the No. 1 reason why I am running is to stand between an overreaching Biden administration with unconstitutional and illegal executive orders and the people of Kansas," Kobach said during his announcement.
There is something darkly humorous about Kobach's run for attorney general, given that during his last stint in public service a federal judge ordered him to take remedial classes after he badly fumbled a trial to defend Kansas' strict voter registration law. (Kobach lost the case.) In 2017, he was fined by another judge for making "patently misleading representations" about the contents of a document he took to a 2016 meeting with then-President-elect Donald Trump. He doesn't exactly have a stellar resume to become the state's top lawyer.
But Kobach is in some ways a mirror image of the former president — both in their shared obsessions, and in their battles with the GOP establishment. So his new campaign may tell us something about the future of the post-Trump Republican Party.
At the national level, old-school GOP stalwarts like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) are fighting — and seemingly losing — their battle to keep Donald Trump from dominating their party's future. Similarly, Kobach brings a high profile to the new race, but starts his new campaign facing resistance from one of the state party's traditional power brokers, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
"Kobach's candidacy puts too much at risk," the president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said last week.
Likewise, national Republican leaders seem torn between Trump's ability to motivate the party's rank-and-file voters and the way he turns off the broader electorate — the party lost both the White House and both houses of Congress under the former president's leadership, after all. Kobach, meanwhile, is decent at attracting GOP support: He has won his party's nomination as a candidate for Congress, secretary of state, and governor. But his batting average with the broader electorate isn't great — he lost both the congressional and gubernatorial runs to Democrats, and did so in a famously right-leaning state.
Perhaps that track record turned the GOP establishment against Kobach. In 2020, top Republicans — both nationally and statewide — pulled out the stops to keep him from winning the party's nomination for the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). McConnell tried to persuade Mike Pompeo, then serving as Trump's secretary of state, to return home and run for office. When that didn't work, Republican PACs poured millions of dollars into the primary race to ensure that Roger Marshall would beat Kobach and keep the seat safe for the party. (A Democratic PAC spent considerable sums supporting Kobach's primary campaign, believing he would make an easier target in the general election.) Marshall won the primary by 14 percentage points. It seemed that Kobach's brand of Trumpist politics was too toxic even in a famously conservative state.
Among state GOP leaders, the skepticism remains.
"As Republicans, we want to win," a former state GOP chairman told AP after last week's announcement. Kobach "has his work cut out for him to try to rally a support base."
But if the party establishment is wary, its rank-and-file is increasingly aligned with Kobach and his longtime passions. Nationally, polls show most Republicans believe — wrongly — that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020. And they are increasingly hostile to immigrants, favoring a border wall and opposing citizenship for undocumented migrants.
Issue polling is relatively infrequent in Kansas, but there are signs that the state's Republican politicians see the way the winds are blowing in their party. The GOP-controlled Kansas legislature spent its most recent session dominated by culture war battles, voting against transgender athletes and undermining the governor's mask mandates. Attorney General Derek Schmidt last year signed onto the Texas lawsuit that tried to overturn Pennsylvania's electoral votes in the presidential election. One of Roger Marshall's first acts in the U.S. Senate — he beat the Democrat — was to vote to oppose the certification of Joe Biden's Electoral College win. Like its national counterpart, the Kansas GOP once had a prominent moderate faction. Remember Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.)? Those days are past.
Marshall's success is particularly telling. Since taking office, Marshall has established himself as a prominent Trumpist voice. In addition to his vote against Biden's certification, he has loudly criticized the new president's stance on immigration and become a regular on Fox News and Newsmax. It is difficult to imagine Kobach doing things differently, had he won the 2020 race. What difference did all those millions of dollars really make? The branding changed, but the substance didn't.
So it's possible McConnell and Cheney will win their battle for the Republican Party's national future. And perhaps the party's state establishment will once again keep Kobach at bay. But even if those leaders win in the short-term, it seems clear the GOP's voters — and many of its elected leaders — have already moved on. Kobach and Trump may not win any more elections, but they are clearly victorious in the battle for the Republican Party's soul.