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How Kris Kobach Could Make Kansas Crazy Again

The ‘Trump before Trump’ candidate for governor will face his first real test in Tuesday’s primary, but will the Democrats stack the field in his favor?

BEDMINSTER TOWNSHIP, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: President-elect Donald Trump greets Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald Trump with Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J.

The Washington Post/Getty Images

Update: 12:30 p.m. ET: President Trump has officially endorsed Kris Kobach.

Original story below.

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Here’s a trick question for you: How could Kansas — or any other state in the union — conceivably find a way to elect a more catastrophically destructive governor than Sam Brownback?

This seems like a logical impossibility, even in the age of Trump. Brownback, in case you’ve forgotten, was the theocratic fool with presidential aspirations who left the U.S. Senate in 2010 to return home and, at the behest of the Koch brothers, turn his perfectly fine state into the closest thing America had to a third-world economy. Brownback didn’t just dramatically and recklessly cut taxes on businesses and corporations and industrial farms and wealthy people; no, he and his wild-eyed lawmaking buddies zeroed out many of their taxes. Kansas would be a “real, live experiment” in trickle-down economics, Brownback liked to boast. Sure was! Annual state revenues quickly went the way of Burundi — $700 million lost in just the first year — and so did schools and hospitals and social services, not to mention that quaint old thing known as “civil society.”

And now, only eight months after Brownback was forced to abandon his post and flee the state in shame (with approval ratings in the low 20s on a good day), the one human being on Earth who could out-awful Brownback is expected to win Tuesday’s Republican primary for governor. And unlike with Brownback in 2010 — when the most extreme things he seemed likely to inflict on the state were various forms of official religious intolerance — the leading candidate in 2018 is a man whom every literate person in America recognizes as the second greatest political con artist of the 21st century: Kris Kobach, the country’s preeminent anti-immigrant profiteer and its most notorious election-fraud fraudster, a fellow who’s quite accurately and widely known among saner denizens of Kansas as having been “Trump before Trump was Trump.”

In defense of Kansans — who deserve some mercy and empathy if anyone does — Kobach isn’t the guy most of them want in the governor’s office. Read any poll, talk to any political observer (including conservatives), and they’ll all agree that it’d be virtually impossible for the Notorious KKK (Kris Kobach of Kansas — hat tip: Samantha Bee) to even hit 50 percent of the vote in November. “Leading Kansas Democrats look forward to running against Kobach,” says KU professor Burdett “Bird” Loomis, long one of the most astute observers of Kansas politics. And the Democrats have three electable candidates vying in next Tuesday’s primary — their first competitive contest in 20 years, which is itself a sign of the party’s revival. If Kobach wins the GOP primary — which is likely, but not a lock — national money will flood into Kansas Democratic coffers. “Around the country, people will see this as an opportunity to stop his political career,” Loomis notes.

So what’s the problem? If Republicans prove self-destructive enough to nominate Kobach — his main competition being Jeff Colyer, the colorless multimillionaire who had to step into Brownback’s shoes, and is backed by the Kochs and Bob Dole — they should be headed to a sure and richly deserved defeat in November, right?. No such luck. KKK may not even need 50 percent of the vote in November — thanks to yet another slippery character, private equity mega-millionaire Greg Orman, who seems hell-bent on running a lavishly self-funded independent campaign for governor even if he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in August of winning the thing. He is currently polling around 10 percent in the governor’s race. If Orman runs, he has to officially submit the signatures needed to get on the ballot by Monday—and ends up with 10 percent, that would allow Kobach to sentence Kansas to four more years of even greater economic devastations and humiliations by winning just 45 percent in the general election. As another sharp-eyed political observer, Bob Beatty of Washburn University, puts it, “A whole lot of Kansas Democrats wouldn’t mind taking Orman out in a field and Orman never comes back.”

The most likely Democratic nominee on Tuesday, veteran state Senator Laura Kelly, is a close pal and longtime political ally of the last Democrat elected governor in Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius. (Sebelius talked a reluctant Kelly into running last December, as she recently recounted.) Like Sebelius, the low-key centrist who became President Obama’s HHS Secretary, Kelly faithfully represents the most venerable lost tradition in Kansas politics: She’s eminently reasonable, super-informed, and dull as the day is long. “Laura is a serious person,” Loomis says. “I keep waiting for her to have at least a campaign photo with even a hint of a smile.”

But that was true of Sebelius, too, who’s still the most popular Democrat in Kansas. This is a state that, as Bob Dole can attest, has a long and enviable tradition of rewarding dullness in its politicians. Along with Kelly’s reputation as one of the legislature’s most ardent and savvy opponents of Brownback, this makes her a dandy alternative to Kobach, though her voting record has its blemishes. (Her dry wit and steadiness would also equip her nicely for the role.) Kelly’s chief Democratic competitor, according to the polls, is former state House member Josh Svaty, a young-ish moderate who runs a farm in Western Kansas and is charming and energetic on the stump — but his anti-abortion views have hampered his bid, along with his dearth of support among the suburban Democratic establishment that Sebelius rules. Otherwise, he’s reasonably progressive — as is the other perfectly fine Democratic candidate with a chance of prevailing on Tuesday, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

After a 2016 election drove out some of the GOP extremists, Democrats and moderate Republicans banded together to pass the largest tax increase in Kansas history last year. The state Supreme Court also chipped in, ordering the state to restore more than $550 million a year in public-school funding. Governor Colyer, in a flash of sanity that Kobach sneers at, decided not to provoke a constitutional crisis by trying to defy the court order. Given the popularity of these recovery efforts, any of the three Dems could, and probably would, win a straight-up matchup against Kobach. But they’re not likely to get one. (Seriously: Can Kansans not catch a break, after all they’ve been through?)

If Republican primary voters turn against Kobach on Tuesday and nominate Colyer — an outside possibility — the Democrats would still have a real shot in the fall, even with Orman, formerly one of the state’s biggest Democratic donors, taking votes away from them. “Tons of money will come in from national Democrats in the fall, regardless,” says political scientist Neal Allen of Wichita State University. That’s partly because Democrats have a decent shot at ousting two GOP incumbents in U.S. House races — one of them potentially going to progressive William Thompson, who recently lured the dynamic duo of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Wichita, where they packed a 4,000-seat arena to overflowing for a raucous wingding of a rally.  

Instead of an election that’s all about Kobach, Colyer would make it an election all about Brownback. And as Allen says, “Brownback is still incredibly toxic. You can’t overstate how much people hate him. I was in a gas station yesterday, and the clerk was looking at some news about Colyer, not knowing I was a political scientist or anything, and said, ‘That guy’s Brownback’s understudy, and we don’t need that. I guess they couldn’t do any worse.’”

They could, though — good God, could they! Kobach, who’s campaigning in a jeep with a replica machine gun mounted on it — and a bobblehead Donald Trump wagging from the front hood — cannot wait to open up a whole new can of whoop-ass crazy on Kansas. It’s his ticket to the White House, Kobach clearly hopes, as Trump’s natural successor in 2021 or (ye gods!) 2025. Don Jr. has made several visits to Kansas to help Kobach raise money and rally the troops. Trump Sr. hasn’t officially endorsed the head of his disastrous and defunct Presidential Commission on Electoral Integrity, but that’s only because Kobach, who’s catching as many lucky breaks in 2018 as the president got in 2016, doesn’t need it. Nobody in Kansas is unaware that the man whose campaign slogan is Make Kansas Great Again is Trump’s favorite mini-me. 

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Gov. Jeff Colyer’s name.

In This Article: RSX

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