Politics & Government

No surrender, no apologies: Can Kobach win using Trump's playbook?

President Donald Trump, with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, speaks at a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on July 19, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.
President Donald Trump, with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, speaks at a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on July 19, 2017, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. Associated Press

When Kris Kobach’s Jeep — bearing a replica machine gun — rolls along in parades, a small Donald Trump figurine sits on the front bumper, leading the way.

The Kansas secretary of state and the president sometimes seem like they’re traveling down the same road.

Both men court controversy, embracing headlines that make other politicians squirm. Both men rarely apologize. And both men are often ideologically in sync, especially on illegal immigration.

Lawmakers and political observers are divided over whether Kobach can win the Republican nomination for governor by exhibiting the same brash style as Trump.

Kansas is solidly conservative and Trump easily won the state. But there were signs that voters were not overly enthused by him. Kansas Republicans wanted Ted Cruz to be the 2016 presidential nominee. Trump received fewer votes in the general election in Kansas than Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush in 2004.

Kobach and his campaign dismiss the idea that he has patterned his run after Trump's. Kobach said he has had the same approach to politics for years. He called the similarities coincidental.

“I am who I am regardless of whether President Trump had ever become president,” Kobach said in an interview.

President Donald Trump appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to a new commission on May 11, 2017, that will investigate voter fraud and other election issues, according to White House officials. This video includes photos by AP Photo/Car

But he added that he was attracted to Trump early in his presidential run because the two took a similar approach. In particular, he was encouraged by Trump’s immigration stance.

Kobach isn't shy about playing up the comparisons between him and Trump on immigration.

“The open-borders-left fights using name calling. They call you a racist, they call you a xenophobe if you just want our laws to be enforced,” Kobach said. In practice, he said that means “you have to be willing to have people call you names falsely and still push ahead and you can’t shrink from criticism on that issue.”

“There’s lots of politicians who when they’re criticized publicly they immediately run for cover, they don’t engage in the fight, they just want the negative statements to go away,” he said.

The Kobach and Trump approach — an unapologetic, publicly confrontational style — has been on full display in recent weeks in Kansas as the summer campaign season begins. It's the final stretch before the August primary election.

On Monday, a federal judge struck down the state's proof of citizenship voter registration law in a ruling that excoriated Kobach’s conduct in court and ordered him to take additional legal classes. Kobach quickly promised to appeal; his office said the judge had reached an “extreme conclusion.”

He said he believes Judge Julie Robinson’s requirement of additional education is not necessary, though he will comply with it.

“I’m not familiar with any other judge doing such a thing,” Kobach said.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach rides in a Jeep mounted with a replica gun in the Old Shawnee Days Parade on Saturday, June 2, 2018.

This month, Kobach’s Jeep and its replica gun prompted complaints and an apology from one city where it appeared in a parade.

“The Kansans I know and respect reject this behavior and have had enough,” Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said. “What happened to common sense, sound judgment and respect for the constituents you serve?”

Kobach hasn’t budged on the Jeep. Instead, he has made a practice of regularly posting pictures of the vehicle on Twitter.

This weekend, Kobach will appear at a fundraiser with rocker Ted Nugent, who has his own record of incendiary comments.

Kobach is following the Trump model, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka. He predicted attention-grabbing controversies involving Kobach will continue, and that it could work for Kobach like it worked for Trump.

In a Republican field with several candidates, Kobach's hardcore supporters may be enough. Kobach had 27 percent support and Gov. Jeff Colyer had 29 percent among Republican voters according to a May poll conducted by the Remington Research Group, a GOP polling firm based in Kansas City. That difference is within the margin of error, and a full 30 percent of voters hadn’t made up their minds.

Still, there are pitfalls to that approach, Beatty said.

Kobach is making little effort to reach moderate voters. That, in turn, could drive moderates to Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer or former state senator Jim Barnett.

“I think his style of campaigning definitely can invigorate his base, but it could also, potentially, invigorate moderate Republicans especially up in Johnson County or northeast Kansas to vote for Colyer or Jim Barnett,” Beatty said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who supports Colyer, said the most recent court ruling against Kobach won’t drive away his supporters, but could make it harder for him to attract additional votes.

“For those who may have been on the fence…I think this gives them the reason, maybe a very good reason, to support Colyer,” Hawkins said.

But Dick Jones, a former Republican state representative from Topeka, takes the opposite view. He said Monday's court ruling had sealed his decision to support for Kobach for governor. He blasted the decision as "one of the most absurd rulings I've ever heard outside of the federal government in Washington."

"He does things that almost mimics Trump a little bit, who I'm very fond of actually," Jones said. "These guys are my idea of what we need at this time."

So far, Colyer — Kobach’s most prominent primary opponent — hasn’t aggressively attacked the secretary of state. But at least one dark money group, A Public Voice Inc., has been airing an anti-Kobach ad focused on his conduct in court.

Asked if the ruling will harm his campaign, Kobach said he’s not worried. He said he’s confident he will prevail in the case on appeal.

Kobach said Trump’s victory in Kansas shows that Republicans, some independents and even some Democrats are comfortable “with a firm approach to holding to one's position and not shrinking whenever there’s criticism.”

He said when voters are deciding whether to support him, they know they’ll get a “known quantity” because he makes his positions clear.

“I reject the idea that candidates should pivot after winning the primary, because I believe it’s dishonest with voters,” Kobach said.

The Kansas secretary of state spoke Monday about the Trump campaign and responded to criticism that the GOP nominee lacks conservative credentials.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman