Kansas is having a moment.
At least for now, the state holds a larger-than-normal role in American politics because of actions by Sen. Jerry Moran and Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Moran played a key role in killing the Republican health care plan, provoking the ire of President Donald Trump. Kobach helped preside over the first meeting of Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, a national platform to pursue his signature issue of voter fraud.
This week, that means headlines and cable news mentions. But ultimately all of the attention may increase the state’s influence in Washington and holds possible consequences at the ballot box, political observers say.
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“At this particular moment, it does seem to be all coming together and giving Kansas a ton of attention,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.
Not to mention the battle between state lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback in June over rolling back his signature tax cuts that drew national coverage. Or Democrat James Thompson’s relatively narrow loss to Republican Ron Estes in March’s special congressional election that some saw as a warning shot to GOP lawmakers across the country.
The national media is attracted to Kansas, in particular, because what happens here sometimes represents what’s happening nationwide, Beatty said.
Take Palco, for example – the small western Kansas town where Moran held a forum earlier this month.
Moran announced his opposition to the original version of the Senate health legislation after it had already died. But it was unclear whether he would support an altered bill. Reporters from an array of national outlets descended upon the forum, where the audience pressed him to oppose the bill.
Less than two weeks later, Moran and another senator came out against a revised version of the bill, killing its chances. The decision rocketed him to a new level of notoriety in the Senate, where previously he had been known for going about his work fairly quietly.
Some will look at him scornfully, Beatty said. Trump in a tweet this week implied Moran and other Republican senators who opposed the bill had been disloyal.
On the other hand, if Moran is perceived as more independent, he potentially has a greater shot at being invited to legislative negotiations, Beatty said.
“He will now be looked upon differently in the U.S. Senate and that will be good and bad,” Beatty said.
Joan Wagnon, a former chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said it felt good to have more Kansans commanding national attention.
Mike Pompeo’s selection as CIA director also boosted the state’s influence, she said. Whether or not you agreed with him, Pompeo, who previously represented Wichita and the surrounding area in Congress, was well-respected by his peers, she said.
Kansas isn’t at a high point of influence, Wagnon said, but is instead emerging from a slump it has been in over the past few years. She said Kansas often commanded attention in the past because of Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee for president.
“We have Kansans in positions of influence now and it’s been a long time since we’ve had that,” Wagnon said.
If Moran is drawing national attention for bucking his party and Trump, Kobach has reached a new level of national recognition for his devotion to rooting out voter fraud. Critics contend his real goal is voter suppression.
He chaired the first meeting of Trump’s Election Integrity Commission on Wednesday, but his earlier request for voter information from all 50 states sparked widespread controversy. Some states have refused the request while others are providing partial data.
Kobach has always been a divisive figure, but the attention now comes as he runs for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018. No other GOP candidate in the race has the name recognition that he has.
Steve Morris, a former Republican Kansas Senate president, said he isn’t sure if the national attention paid to Kansas at the moment would alter an election.
“I don’t know whether it’s risen to a level of affecting the ballot box or not,” Morris said.
Moran doesn’t face reelection for five years. But voters will make a decision about Kobach much sooner.
So far, the controversy surrounding Kobach has only helped him politically and has helped him build national name recognition. But if Kobach is seen by Kansas voters as a national politician, it could be a liability, Beatty said.
Brownback left the U.S. Senate to return to Kansas to become governor. More than six years later, the public has soured on him. A new poll this week found that he remains one of the least popular governors in the country.
Whether voters would be in the mood for another national politician remains to be seen.
“It’s helped Kobach – his national presence – a lot,” Beatty said. “But following Brownback, it’s unclear as to whether that could hurt him going into the governor’s race.”