Kris Kobach, the polarizing former Kansas secretary of state, launched a campaign for Senate on Monday — alarming Republicans who fear his candidacy could put the GOP-held open seat in jeopardy next fall.
Kobach is the third Republican to announce a run for the seat held by Sen. Pat Roberts, who is not seeking reelection next year. Kobach just lost a statewide race — the 2018 contest for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly — and some Republicans worry that the otherwise safe Kansas seat could become competitive if Kobach emerges from a GOP primary, which could imperil the party’s Senate majority.
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Republican leaders’ preferred candidate is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman and key ally to President Donald Trump. But Pompeo faces a personal dilemma over whether to remain in Trump’s cabinet or seek a Senate seat as he considers his own political future. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told POLITICO last month Pompeo was his “first choice” for the seat.
If Pompeo doesn’t run, a crowded field of candidates is likely — which could benefit Kobach, who is well known among the GOP electorate and narrowly won a competitive primary a year ago.
During his announcement, Kobach stood in front of a sign that read “Build the Wall” and touted his record as an immigration hawk and an ally to Trump, with whom he spoke on the topic as recently as last week, he said.
“Our borders are being overrun. The calls for socialism on the left get louder and louder, and they don’t stop. And if not for the election of Donald Trump, I think our nation would be in a steep downward spiral right now,” Kobach said.
He later added that it was not time for a “quiet senator” or a senator that was “Republican-lite.” He also accused the Republican Senate of not being out front on Trump’s agenda.
“The Senate has come along kicking and screaming in many instances, not leading,” he said.
Kobach’s candidacy is the latest in a string of primary concerns for Senate Republicans. Roy Moore, the controversial former judge in Alabama who lost a Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones in 2017, is running again in a crowded primary. With similar parallels to Kobach’s campaign, Republican leaders believe the seat is in jeopardy if Moore emerges as the nominee.
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina faces a primary challenge from a self-funding businessman, and appointed Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona faces a potential primary challenge. Trump endorsed both Tillis and McSally last month in an effort to head off those primary concerns — and he also tweeted out his opposition to Moore’s candidacy.
Kobach doesn’t carry the same kind of baggage as Moore, but he has long cultivated an image as a hardliner on immigration and voting access issues. Kobach has championed both stricter enforcement against illegal immigration and significant cuts in legal immigration. And as secretary of state, Kobach devoted significant resources toward fighting voter fraud, despite little evidence that the extent of fraud matched Kobach’s assertions.
Republicans in Washington rallied against Kobach Monday, citing his 5-point loss to Kelly last November as evidence he would be a weak Senate candidate.
“Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat. Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump’s presidency and Senate majority at risk,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We know Kansans won’t let that happen, and we look forward to watching the Republican candidate they do choose win next fall.”
Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnnell, echoed those concerns and said the group hasn’t made decisions about spending on the primary — but that “Kansas Republicans deserve a nominee who can win.”
State Treasurer Jake LaTurner and former NFL player Dave Lindstrom are already running. Rep. Roger Marshall and state Senate President Susan Wagle are both considering running, as is Washington lobbyist Matt Schlapp. Other Republican candidates could emerge. The filing deadline isn’t until June of next year, which leaves significant time for Pompeo to consider his options, and for other Republicans to potentially run.
A split field with no clear frontrunner is exactly the scenario Republicans opposed to Kobach fear could lead him to emerge from the pack.
One veteran GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss the race candidly, said no other Republican has gained enough traction to eliminate concerns about Kobach.
“Kobach doesn’t carry the same poison amongst primary voters that a Roy Moore does at this point to disqualify himself entirely,” the strategist said. “He has disqualified himself with the center of the electorate thoroughly, however, which is why he lost a general and would lose it again if given the opportunity.”
Some of Kobach’s allies see the same scenario taking place in the primary.
“Kris is a tough candidate to beat in a primary,” said J.R. Claeys, a state representative who served as Kobach’s campaign manager in 2018 but is not on his campaign team now. “He can make up for a lack of campaign funds with earned media, and he has better odds when the race has multiple credible candidates that lower the winning number to a plurality. If he only needs 30 percent to win, he has that loyal following to get him there. If he needs 50 percent, it’s a tougher race.”
While Kobach formally announced his candidacy Monday afternoon, his campaign began with a misstep earlier Monday, when it filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that misspelled the candidate’s name as “Chris.” The campaign quickly filed amended paperwork to fix the error — but not before the ridicule began in the local press and social media.
Democrats are eager to turn Kansas into a potential offensive opportunity, which would both spread out Republican money and put another seat in play. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and former Rep. Nancy Boyda are both already running. State Sen. Barbara Bollier, who switched parties following the 2018 election, met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about a potential run, according to McClatchy.