Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Monday his run for US Senate, igniting a divisive primary between Republicans who view him as a conservative crusader and those fed up with his recent failed campaign for governor and long record attempting to crack down on supposed voter fraud.
In his speech in Leavenworth, Kansas, Kobach tied himself closely to President Donald Trump. He stood in front of a sign featuring Trump’s slogan “BUILD THE WALL” and said that if Trump had not been elected, “our nation and our Constitution would be in a downward spiral.”
Since Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts announced he’s retiring at the end of his term in 2020, some Republicans in Washington and Kansas have feared that a number of candidates would jump in the race and split the vote, leaving the controversial Kobach as the primary’s victor.
Kobach, a former state party chairman, has maintained a strong Republican base of support due to his years as an immigration hardliner and advocate for a law to require proof of citizenship to register to vote.
“Kris is a real tough candidate to beat in a primary in Kansas,” said Kansas state Rep. J.R. Claeys, Kobach’s campaign manager for his unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2018. “I think a lot of people respond to the consistency with which he’s fought for conservative values.”
But the firebrand’s message was rejected by voters in 2018, when he lost the governor’s race in the reliably red state to Democrat Laura Kelly.
It was part of a string of losses for Kobach. In the past several years, a federal judge has struck down his signature election law and found him in contempt of court for disobeying orders to notify people who were registered to vote. In January, Trump’s commission on voter fraud, which Kobach served on as the vice chairman, disbanded without finding evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread violations. And in the past few months, the Trump administration pulled its consideration of Kobach to be “immigration czar,” following the leak of his list of demands, including round-the-clock access to a government jet and the nomination of the secretary of homeland security post, to The New York Times.
Some top Republican political strategists in Kansas and Washington did not warmly greet the news of Kobach’s expected candidacy, which misspelled “Kris Kobach” as “Chris Kobach” in his filing with the Federal Election Commission.
“L-O-S-E-R,” David Kensinger, campaign manager for Roberts and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, said in a text message to CNN.
The official campaign arm of Senate Republicans also criticized Kobach’s candidacy before it was even announced.
“Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat,” said Joanna Rodriguez, the spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign committee. “Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump’s presidency and Senate Majority at risk. We know Kansans won’t let that happen and we look forward to watching the Republican candidate they do choose win next fall.”
Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner has formally declared in the race for Roberts’ seat, but other prominent Republicans have also considered a run, including Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall, Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, former Gov. Jeff Colyer – who Kobach beat in the GOP gubernatorial primary – and Wink Hartman, a businessman who ran for lieutenant governor on Kobach’s ticket.
Claeys said Kobach would benefit from running against a large number of Republican candidates, claiming that he’s not going to have “a significant drop off in his core support” from the 2018 election.
“When you lower that number that it takes to win with multiple credible candidates, it does make it a lot easier for him to find that upper 20s, lower 30% loyal following that is going to put him over the top,” Claeys said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans have said they want Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run, which would likely clear the field and prevent Kobach or someone else from winning the nomination. Earlier this year, Pompeo said a 2020 Senate campaign was “ruled out” but subsequent reports have suggested otherwise.
Claeys said Pompeo would be “nearly impossible to beat.”
Two Democrats — former Rep. Nancy Boyda and former US Attorney Barry Grissom — have also launched campaigns for Senate.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.