Kansas voters have told him no twice in the past four years. But Chris Kobach is betting nonetheless that this is the year he’s back in politics.
His losses, including the 2018 defeat that handed the governorship in this republican-leaning country to a Democrat, may end other political functions. But Kopacz, who built a national reputation as an immigration hawk when he was Kansas Secretary of State, is now targeting the state’s attorney general’s office.
He faces two Republican opponents who lack the power of his star. If he wins the primaries on August 2, the coming tide of the Republican Party in November may be enough to lift even the vacillating candidates.
So far, the primary race against state Senator Kelly Warren and former federal prosecutor Tony Matvey has mostly revolved around the candidates’ backgrounds, personal styles, and whether they have the courtroom chops to win lawsuits against President Joe Biden’s policies on issues like guns. Abortion and business regulation.
“I decided to run for attorney general on the day President Biden was sworn in,” Kobach said in his latest candidate debate, after promising to create a special unit focused on litigating the federal government.
But Warren, Matvey and their supporters want to make the race around electability, too — even if it looks like any Democrat would be a poor match for any Republican, given inflation, gas prices and anger over COVID-19 restrictions. The Democrats are running first-time candidate Chris Mann, an attorney, former police officer and former local attorney general.
“Why take the risk?” said Alan Cope, president and CEO of the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Warren in the attorney general race. “There are exceptions to waves all the time.”
The Kobach years pushing hard-line immigration policies and voter ID cards, along with bold personality, alienated independent and moderate Republican voters in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Leading Republicans then called it a risky bet in 2020, losing the Senate primary by 14 percentage points. In front of US Representative Roger Marshall, who then won the general election.
Brittany Jones, director of policy for the Kansas Family Voice, called Kobach a “good guy” who would undoubtedly align with the conservative group on the issues. But the group endorsed Warren over Kobach.
“He’s proven over and over again that he can’t win,” Jones said. Kobach also lost the Congressional race in 2004.
Matvey has handled high-profile terrorism cases as a federal attorney general and secured endorsements from dozens of mayors and attorneys general, including the attorney general of the state’s most populous county. During the last discussion, he said, “The election is an absolute matter.”
But Kobach argued in the recent debate that he showed he could beat Democrats in statewide races by winning a term as Secretary of State in 2010 and 2014. “The big red wave,” Kobach’s Republican Senator J.R. Claes, said in the recent debate. The forthcoming removes any outstanding questions about Kobach’s electability.
On the primary day, Kansans will vote to add anti-abortion language to the state constitution, and Kobach argues that supporters of that measure are likely to vote for it. But Warren was clear in the legislative pressure to get her on the ballot.
In Kobach’s first race for Secretary of State in 2010, he was better known than his rivals, thanks to his national profile as a law professor who wrote the strict state and local immigration rules outside of Kansas. In November of that year, he ousted a Democratic incumbent who had been appointed to the state’s highest election office just months earlier.
In his second term, Kobach’s star continued to rise. He was Kansas’ first prominent supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy, advised Trump on immigration issues, served as vice chair of the Trump short-term committee on election fraud, and was mentioned as a potential Cabinet appointee. He was a regular guest on Fox News and a columnist for Breitbart.
He promoted the idea that fraud was distorting the US election long before the Republican Party embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
In the recent debate, Kopacz argued that his nomination for governor in 2018 fell victim to a “bloodbath” at the Republican national level.
In Kansas that year, Democrat Charice Davids ousted the Republican nominee who had held the office for four terms in the Kansas City-area congressional district, and Governor Laura Kelly was among seven new Democratic governors to replace Republicans. Democrats regained a majority in the US House of Representatives.
But Kelly Arnold, the state’s Republican chairwoman at the time, maintains that Kobach’s 2018 fundraiser was lackluster. In the attorney general’s race, Kopacz loaned his campaign $200,000 last year, nearly half of the $425,000 he raised.
Arnold also argues that Kobach’s nomination revitalized the Democratic Party’s political base.
“The only thing that can unite the Democrats to go out and vote is Kobach,” Arnold said.
Some Kobach’s critics still talk about the jeep that a supporter lent him in 2018 with a replica of a machine gun on the back. Mandy Hunter, a 46-year-old moderate real estate attorney and property attorney in Kansas City, mentioned Kobash as “incredibly divisive.”
Kopacz rode the jeep at rallies and mocked what he called the resulting “snowflake collapse”.
“Kopach has rudeness — very self-confidence during all situations,” said Bob Petty, a professor of political science at Washburn University. “Many GOP primary voters like that, unless, as in a Senate race, he faces a well-funded opponent who can inform them of his downsides.”
U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, of Texas, and James Dobson, evangelical author, broadcaster, and founder of Focus on the Family, have endorsed Kubach, as have former U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft, whom Kubach described as a mentor.
GOP voters may also feel that the attorney general’s office is a better fit for Kopacz than the other offices he has sought. Chris Van Mitteren, president of a Kansas City-area Republican direct mail and consulting firm, said Kopacz’s campaigns for secretary of state have had a “law and order” tone by emphasizing election fraud as an issue.
With GOP voters searching for someone to vigorously challenge the Biden administration, Van Mittern added, Kobach is known better than the other candidates as a “fighter.”
“He’s got the most solid reputation for being someone willing to take the left,” Van Mitteren said.
Leonard Hall, a 69-year-old Kansas City district attorney, said he has not decided which candidate to support but believes Kobach’s past losses “are not an issue.”
“I don’t look at it in the past tense,” Hall said after the last discussion. “Just the fact that Kobach lost, I don’t think that can be held against him.”
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Overland Park, Kansas, contributed to this report.
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