Controversy and Kris Kobach have never been strangers.
Long before he was Kansas secretary of state, Kobach regularly landed in one political dustup or another.
He’s been a headline machine whether he was challenging the longtime mayor of Overland Park as a rookie city councilman, writing tough new immigration policies at the U.S. Justice Department or pushing new voting restrictions.
His latest effort to force a Democratic candidate on the ballot against U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts — a move that would aid the incumbent against independent challenger Greg Orman — threatens to be one controversy too many.
A once-healthy seven-point lead in the polls this summer for the Republican has narrowed to a neck-and-neck race for re-election in recent weeks against Democrat Jean Schodorf.
Further, a recent poll showed a voting public frowning on Kobach’s attempt to keep Democrat Chad Taylor’s name on the ballot for U.S. Senate even though the candidate withdrew from the race.
Kobach insisted that Taylor’s name remain on the ballot because Taylor didn’t cite specific language stating that he was incapable of fulfilling his duties in office. The state Supreme Court reversed Kobach and criticized his logic.
Partisan critics accused Kobach of trying to help fellow Republican Roberts, who stood to benefit if Taylor drew support away from Orman in the Senate race.
“The Taylor controversy did cost him,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. “It made an impact.”
The Taylor flap, Beatty said, may be the issue that finally tips against Kobach after years of being in the state and national spotlight.
“He’s got his hand in so many things. It’s not specific to any one issue. It’s a cumulative thing,” Beatty said. “For some voters, this Taylor thing was once again Kobach in the headlines.”
Kobach said he didn’t think the controversy would ultimately hurt his re-election chances.
Voters, he said, understand that as secretary of state he is the chief elections officer responsible for calling balls and strikes in this kind of case.
“It’s part of the job,” Kobach said. “People who are following it realize that. The people who don’t like the fact that I am enforcing the law in the Taylor case probably weren’t going to vote for me anyway.”
Schodorf, the Democratic challenger, has used the Taylor case to rally support to her side. She argues the Taylor case is another example of the incumbent using a largely ministerial office for political purposes.
“These are his true colors,” Schodorf said. “This is what he has been been doing for three and a half years. He’s only been representing himself and his party.”
The clearest example that Schodorf might have been helped by the Taylor ballot controversy were surveys conducted in August and September by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C.
The August poll, done several weeks before Taylor withdrew from the Senate race, found Kobach leading Schodorf 43 percent to 38 percent. A month later, a poll done during the dispute found Kobach leading by a single percentage point.
Public Policy Polling also found in the September poll that 44 percent of voters disapproved of the way Kobach handled Taylor’s withdrawal. At the same time, 63 percent of voters thought Taylor’s name should be stricken from the ballot.
The polling firm’s director, Tom Jensen, said the ballot dispute appeared to have pushed undecideds to Schodorf’s side of the ledger.
The percentage of undecideds dropped from 19 percent in August to 15 percent in September. The Democrat gained ground and Kobach held steady.
“People sort of think Kobach was being unfair and overly political,” Jensen said in explaining the shift.
With the election still a month away, the polls are still soft, Kobach said. He doubts that many undecided voters are forming their opinion now. “I take those polling numbers with a bucket of salt.”
Beatty points out that neither candidate has gone all out yet with a mass media assault, something that will start to take shape soon.
Kobach entered the general election with almost $200,000 in the bank. Schodorf had about $10,000 on hand going into the general election, but a spokesman said the candidate has much more money now than in July.
“It’s possible,” Beatty said, “for someone to start running TV ads and have everyone say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll vote for him.’”
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