Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has gained a national reputation advocating for tough immigration enforcement and voter identification laws, is running for governor.
Kobach launched his campaign Thursday, decrying a “culture of corruption” in Topeka and slamming the tax increase lawmakers forced into law earlier this week over Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto that is intended to raise $1.2 billion over the next two years. He vowed to slash spending through the attrition of retiring state workers and cutting off welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants.
Kobach is the most prominent Republican to jump into the 2018 race for governor so far. He had been saying for months he was weighing a run and in recent weeks ruled out taking a position in President Donald Trump’s administration. He offers voters a firebrand conservative option in the Republican primary. Kobach has proven a lightning rod, both in Kansas and nationwide.
Kansas government is bloated, Kobach said, adding that he was “ashamed” that Republicans had supported the tax increases.
“We need a governor who will say no and stop the madness in Topeka. ... The state does not need more money,” Kobach said.
The state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, he said.
“This is absolutely the worst time for the worst tax increase in our state’s history,” Kobach said.
Kobach, 51, called for term limits for statewide offices and struck out at Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, for the length of time he has spent in the Legislature. Hensley was first elected when Kobach was 8, he said.
Hensley responded by listing controversies Kobach has been involved in and alleged he has worked with white supremacist groups, citing a Southern Poverty Law Center analysis of the secretary’s associations. Kobach has called the law center “a shameful organization that peddles in lies.”
“It’s pretty ironic that Kris Kobach would question my public service record when he has been nothing more than a part time Secretary of State who is the master of voter suppression,” Hensley said in a statement.
Kobach transformed the secretary of state’s office from a typically quiet position administering elections into a platform to successfully press for a law to require proof of citizenship in order to vote. That law faces legal challenges, however.
Kobach, an attorney who holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, also persuaded lawmakers in 2015 to provide him with the prosecutorial power to pursue voter fraud. He has obtained nine convictions.
Kobach joins an unsettled Republican field for the August 2018 primary. Wichita businessman Wink Hartman is running, and entrepreneur Ed O’Malley, who runs the Kansas Leadership Center, is in the midst of an exploratory campaign.
Other officials who have drawn speculation are Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.
On the Democratic side, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former state Rep. Josh Svaty of Ellsworth have announced their candidacies. House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita is also weighing a run.
Democrats immediately sought to tie Kobach to Brownback and denounced his positions on immigration.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, has been a fierce critic of Kobach’s work in Kansas. He said Thursday that he wasn’t surprised by Kobach’s decision to run for governor.
“I’m also not at all surprised that he is running, in part at least, on a platform of hate,” he said. “That he wants to ‘stamp out, stamp out’ people who are immigrants in this country. He has some fantasy that there are sanctuary cities, apparently in Kansas.
“He lives in the same delusional world that our governor has lived in for the past six years, and it’s time to have a governor who bases decisions on real facts, not fake news.”
Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, spoke highly of Kobach and said she agrees with his views on sanctuary cities.
“I think he’s a dynamic character, or a dynamic elected official,” Tyson said. “I think that he works hard. He has integrity. I think it’s going to be an interesting year for Kansans.”
Kobach backed Trump’s presidential candidacy early and enthusiastically – the first major statewide Kansas elected official to do so. He has served as an adviser to Trump on immigration and other issues.
Last month, Trump named Kobach to a commission to examine voter fraud and other election issues.
The commission and Kobach’s appointment drew criticism from civil rights groups and others who described the creation of the panel as a farce intended to perpetuate a false narrative that millions of people voted illegally in the November election. They said the commission’s finding will be used to justify unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote.
Kobach said the commission members are approaching their work with an open mind. He said the commission was not set up with the specific goal of validating Trump’s voter fraud campaign.
Kobach has previously said he advised Trump to investigate voter fraud.
Trump has stated that millions of illegal votes cast by noncitizens tipped the popular vote in the 2016 election to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton despite his victory in the Electoral College. Those claims have never been verified.
Contributing: Hunter Woodall and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star