Politics & Government

Kobach embraces controversy as other candidates try to avoid it

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running for governor, has not shied away from controversy. Other candidates say they are taking a different route.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running for governor, has not shied away from controversy. Other candidates say they are taking a different route. The Wichita Eagle file photo

Kris Kobach isn’t shy about jumping into the middle of big controversies: He wrote an op-ed last week contending that if NFL players despise America they should leave the country.

Other candidates for governor say they can make inroads against Kobach – the secretary of state and the most prominent name in the race – by staying out of the fray.

They call him hyper-partisan and say Kansans don’t want that. Instead, they say, voters want a focus on fiscal discipline and stability in government after years of negative national headlines under Gov. Sam Brownback.

Analysts say no other candidate in the race can hope to be as provocative as Kobach. But they there are other paths to victory that don’t require matching his rhetoric.

Kobach, a Republican, says he is not overly partisan. He says he led bipartisan efforts to pass legislation requiring photo identification to vote and also to streamline business filings. He suggested that those who say he’s too partisan are liberals.

NFL latest flashpoint

But Kobach stoked controversy when he published an opinion piece on the conservative news site Breitbart about the firestorm surrounding NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

There is "no excuse for disrespecting our country," he wrote. There are better ways to protest than taking a knee during the anthem, he said.

He suggested that kneeling players may despise America.

"If that’s the case, then I encourage them to do something truly courageous. Give up your cushy salary and try making such a comfortable living in another country."

Asked about the NFL protests, Republican candidate Mark Hutton said he respects the flag but found it discouraging that the country was dividing over the issue.

More broadly, Hutton said, his “clear path” in the race is to tell people what he represents, which he said is consensus and good government.

That’s in contrast to “some of the other candidates that have a little more of a grenade-throwing mentality,” said Hutton, a Wichita businessman and former state representative.

Jim Barnett, a former state senator running as a Republican, said voters are looking for someone pragmatic who is willing to work across party lines.

“(Kobach’s) comments often are media seeking,” Barnett said.

The national political environment is very divisive and voters want something different, said Josh Svaty, a former state representative running for governor as a Democrat.

"A candidate that is seen as a hyper-partisan bomb thrower is not going to advance the cause of relaunching … the state’s economy," Svaty said.

Kobach calls opponents liberal

Asked for a response, a spokeswoman for Kobach initially said the secretary would call an Eagle reporter, but then released a written statement instead.

In it, Kobach appeared to reference the Legislature’s rollback of Brownback’s signature tax cuts this spring, when Republicans and Democrats voted to override the governor’s veto.

"When liberal politicians raise your taxes they call it a bipartisan plan, but when one candidate stands alone in calling for lower taxes they call it hyper-partisan," he said in a statement.

The Kansas governor’s race in some ways mirrors the 2016 Republican presidential race, where candidates realized they couldn’t "out-Trump Trump," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka. No one can "out-Kobach Kobach."

Kobach has taken the "provocateur" space in the race, Beatty said, and won’t be dislodged.

"The reason that it’s not really possible is the key to most successful politicians is authenticity. And whatever you may think of Trump, whatever you may think of Kobach, they’re authentic provocateurs," Beatty said.

Kobach’s outspoken reputation holds possible disadvantages, however.

Candidates may have an opening to attack him as too involved or interested in issues outside of the state, said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

Kobach serves as the vice chair of President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, which gives him a national platform. He has also been quick to comment on Trump’s recent decision to end a program that shields undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation.

"If I were running against him, that’s exactly what I would hit him on," Smith said. 

Paths for other candidates

The rest of the Republican field can’t match Kobach as a provocateur, but there are other roles candidates can play. They can compete as someone who can promise Kansas a "return to normalcy," as Beatty describes it, or as a successor to Brownback, who remains popular with some Republican voters.

No candidate more embodies the tension between those two paths than Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. He is attempting to navigate the race as a candidate who has been at Brownback’s side for years but also promises to "change the tone."

He brushes aside the suggestion that a new tone tone implies something was wrong with the old one. Colyer suggested this week he’s just trying to be who he has always been and said he’s going to "continue operating in that mode."

Colyer could become governor within weeks. Brownback has been nominated as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a confirmation hearing is set for next week. He is expected to resign if confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

How he handles his time as governor will help show if he plans to run as Brownback’s successor or as someone who wants to chart a different direction – or whether he tries to split the difference.

"What (Colyer) may want to do is to try to keep some Brownback people and get some return-to-normalcy people," Beatty said. "But in many ways that’s what all these candidates are trying to do."

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman