Kansas secretary of state race now high profile

12/23/2013 7:04 AM

01/21/2014 6:24 AM

When Bill Graves plunged into Kansas politics in 1986 to run for secretary of state, he needed more than just money and statewide support.

“One of the hardest challenges on the campaign trail was to explain what the secretary of state did. I mean, why should it matter?” the former governor told historians. “How do you generate some energy?”

Experts don’t expect that to be a problem for Kris Kobach, the current Republican secretary of state who has been a polarizing figure partly because of his efforts in Kansas and beyond to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Kobach is running for a second term. He has drawn Democratic opposition from Jean Schodorf, a former Republican state senator from Wichita who was defeated in the conservative sweep of 2012.

Schodorf was part of the moderate Republican leadership team that controlled the state Senate until 2012. She grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas. Her brother is Bill Kurtis, the Kansas television personality who hosted the long-running A&E series “Investigative Reports.”

Experts believe the race probably will get every bit as much attention – if not more – than Gov. Sam Brownback’s bid for re-election.

And all for a job that is, as the name suggests, somewhat secretarial. The Kansas secretary of state mostly oversees elections and is the chief bookkeeper of business records.

“What used to be a sleepy race might be as big as a gubernatorial race,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist whose interview with Graves was published in “Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains.”

“It might even garner more national attention than the average gubernatorial race in Kansas,” Beatty said.

For years, the Kansas secretary of state position has been filled by – with the notable exception of Graves – politicians who neither sought nor achieved a high profile or higher office. The best publicity was no publicity.

But Kobach is no political wallflower. He has pressed for laws requiring voter ID at the polls and proof of citizenship when registering to vote. His moves have prompted protests outside the state Capitol from groups who think he’s trying to suppress voting.

Kobach also gained national publicity for his work helping states such as Arizona and Alabama write laws cracking down on illegal immigration.

“He’s completely turned this office on its head in terms of the tradition of the office,” Beatty said.

Kobach concedes he has made enemies from a place where few do.

“Some people on the far left of the political spectrum are irritated that I succeeded in doing so much to reform Kansas elections,” Kobach said. “I promised in the 2010 election to do certain things. I made good on those promises.”

Indeed, a poll done earlier this year by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs found 48.5 percent saying they would vote for Kobach if the election were held today.

He was overwhelmingly supported by people who considered themselves “strong Republicans” and overwhelmingly opposed by those who considered themselves “strong Democrats.”

“Kris is obviously more of a lightning rod than the people who held the job before,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “Democrats or liberals have a strong emotional dislike of Kobach. That will make the race a higher profile than the past.”

The race probably will center on Kobach’s efforts to require new voters to prove their citizenship with a birth certificate or a passport, among a handful of other documents.

The requirement has held up the registration of 18,000 would-be voters who didn’t have proof of citizenship when they signed up to vote. Many of those registered to vote at driver’s license offices.

Schodorf voted to require proof of citizenship when she was a senator. But she blames Kobach for what she sees as poor implementation of the new law.

“Kris Kobach said it would be easy and simple. He didn’t live up to his word,” Schodorf said. “I feel like we were misled. I want to make it right.”

She said Kansas should change the law by allowing people to swear their citizenship under a penalty of perjury when they sign the voter registration form, rather than requiring they present legal documents.

Kobach, meanwhile, said the system is working seamlessly. He said election officials are making efforts with letters and phone calls to urge prospective voters to complete their applications by sending in their citizenship documents.

He said those who registered but didn’t have their citizenship papers could fax or e-mail those documents to the local election office. In some counties, the papers can be photographed and sent by text message to the election office.

The proof-of-citizenship requirement is doing what it’s supposed to do, he said, adding that there were two cases where it stopped noncitizens from trying to register to vote.

Schodorf also is trying to capitalize on Kobach’s outside legal work to battle illegal immigration, an endeavor that has earned him more than $400,000 in the few years before and after he took office.

“Kris Kobach has done a terrible job,” she said. “We need a full-time secretary of state who’s not moonlighting – going off to Arizona and a lot of different states and not spending time doing the job he was hired to do.”

As he has in the past, Kobach dismisses this charge. He says what he does in his spare time has no relevance to his work as secretary of state.

“What I do in my spare time and on weekends is none of Ms. Schodorf’s business,” Kobach said. “Instead of playing golf, if I choose to stop illegal immigration, that’s my choice.”

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