Kris Kobach once took a political ideology test in high school. He said he received the most conservative score possible.
Not much has changed.
In his vision of Kansas, undocumented immigrants don’t receive in-state tuition at colleges. Cities and counties must cooperate with federal immigration authorities. And state government faces real spending cuts.
In his vision of Kansas, the state constitution has been amended to say that the right to an abortion doesn’t exist and that the Kansas Supreme Court can’t tell the Legislature it needs to spend more on schools.
It’s the stuff of conservative dreams and liberal nightmares. Although other conservatives in the race for governor support many of the same things, no one else produces such strong reactions.
Kobach is just fine with that. If anything, he takes it as a sign of progress.
“To be a conservative and to get things done means you will be criticized and you will be called nasty names in today’s politics,” Kobach said. “The only way to avoid being called these names is to not to be a conservative or to not get things done.”
But can Kobach convince Republican voters he will make this vision a reality?
Kobach says he can talk to everyone without compromising his principles and that will allow him to work effectively with lawmakers. A near-total imperviousness to political attacks is also a selling point.
He says his close ties to President Donald Trump will help, and he made a point of highlighting that he keeps in touch regularly with the White House.
Kobach’s opponents suggest a seemingly non-stop set of controversies will bog him down in the governor’s office. But other critics warn he could prove effective and turn the state in a sharp rightward direction.
‘It’s his time’
Kobach’s campaign for governor may not have happened at all had he taken a job in the Trump administration.
In the wake of Trump’s election in November 2016, Kobach weighed potential jobs in Washington. He was photographed heading into a meeting with Trump carrying a plan for the Department of Homeland Security, prompting to speculation that he was being considered to lead the agency.
After Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly departed to become White House chief of staff in the summer of 2017, Trump considered Kobach for the position, NBC News has reported.
For whatever reason — whether he was passed up for some jobs or turned others down — Kobach remained in Kansas.
“For me, the question was where could I move the ball the farthest where nobody else could,” Kobach said in an interview.
Kobach said he concluded he could make a greater difference in Kansas.
“To run the race and win would be very rewarding and to be governor would be an amazing opportunity, but is it essential at this juncture that I be the one who sits in the governor’s office?” Kobach said.
“And kind of framing the question that way and looking at all the options, it became clear to me that I think Kansas needs a conservative governor who can articulate and defend his views and can lead and that Kansas needs that more than the Trump administration needed me in those particular roles.”
Kobach took a big step to becoming better known in Kansas when he won the race for secretary of state in 2010. Up to that point, he had been a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and had been involved in immigration-related litigation across the country.
As secretary, Kobach turned his attention to Kansas, using the office as a platform to successfully lobby lawmakers to require people to prove citizenship when they registered to vote. He also convinced lawmakers to give him the power to prosecute voter fraud, making him the only secretary of state in the nation with that ability.
Those achievements may ultimately prove fleeting. A federal judge this spring found the proof of citizenship law unconstitutional, the result of a years-long lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
At a trial that lasted several days, Kobach served as his own attorney and personally argued in favor of the law. It did not go well.
Judge Julie Robinson repeatedly admonished him over procedural missteps and ordered him to take additional legal education. She also found Kobach in contempt of court for not following a previous order.
Kobach has contended the proof of citizenship law was needed to prevent voter fraud. But Robinson found the law disproportionately affected qualified applicants while only “nominally” preventing non-citizens from registering.
The ruling was a blow to Kobach, who maintains voter fraud is a significant problem, though there is little evidence of that in Kansas or nationwide. But it was a boon to Democrats and other groups, like the League of Women Voters, who rushed to register more people to vote this summer.
After the ruling, Kobach vowed to appeal. The attorney general’s office is taking over the case, which Kobach said had been expected.
Kobach hasn’t expressed any regret about representing himself in the case. He only wishes the case had moved faster because he believes Kansas will win on appeal.
Revisiting tax cuts
When Trump won the Republican nomination, Democrats predicted they would be able to defeat him. The same could now be said of Kobach if he secures the GOP nod, according to Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.
Of course, Trump went on to win the election.
Carmichael said that as a Democrat he’d prefer to face Kobach in the general election because of his extremist views.
“But the possibility of the man becoming governor is just terrifying,” Carmichael said.
Kobach is promising to push to reinstate former Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature 2012 income tax cuts. Lawmakers largely repealed the cuts in 2017 after years of large budget shortfalls.
He said the problem with the Brownback policy was that spending wasn’t cut at the same time as taxes. To fix that issue, he has promised to reduce state spending by leaving positions vacant as employees retire or resign.
He also opposes a new law that will boost annual school spending by $525 million. Gov. Jeff Colyer backed the plan, but Kobach calls it a ransom to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Kobach has promised an executive order that would ban undocumented immigrants from working in state government, or with contractors who do business with the state. He has also said he’ll push to force local governments to cooperate with federal immigration authorities or face a loss of state funding.
Kobach has faced charges of racism and xenophobia for years. One sticker spotted recently in Lawrence, one of the state’s few Democratic enclaves, reads “No Kris Kobach Kansas” and “Reject White Supremacy.”
He criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. He prosecuted a man for voter fraud who said he had made an honest mistake. He opposes granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
Kobach dismisses claims of racism and says he supports legal immigration.
Whatever the accusation, he said his skin is thick enough that it doesn’t bother him.
“It’s gotten to the point where they can say whatever they want. I really just don’t care anymore,” Kobach said.
Kobach’s no apologies conservatism is a powerful attraction for some Republicans. Rep. Bill Sutton, a Gardner Republican who supports Kobach, said he is a force who has principles that do not move, whether they’re popular or not.
Sutton is dismissive of the controversies involving Kobach.
“I think people are starting to get a little bit numb to it,” Sutton said. “People who know Kris know these are completely silly.”
Outside a Perkin’s restaurant in Gardner, where Kobach had spoke to a group of Republicans, Ernie Honas said he had been following Kobach’s career for years. Honas said he was involved in the Tea Party movement and had visited Kobach’s office when he was first elected in secretary of state. He left impressed.
“I just think Kris Kobach is just more qualified than Jeff (Colyer). Jeff’s a fine man, but to me Kobach — I’ve been following his career, and it’s his time,” Honas said.
Colyer has leveled some of the sharpest criticism in recent weeks. He has called Kobach a “show pony” and accused him of seeking a pardon for the vice president of a corporate donor.
Kobach calls Colyer’s attacks desperate.
Expect ‘no retreat’
Kobach said he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t conservative.
Attending Harvard for his undergraduate studies made him even more conservative, Kobach said, because he was put on the defensive.
“I was constantly being challenged and being told I was wrong. If anything, it sharpened my ability to rebut the attacks from the left side,” Kobach said.
In 2001, Kobach joined the United States Department of Justice where he worked under Attorney General John Ashcroft. At the agency, he spearheaded the launch of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a controversial program that tracked non-citizens considered high risk. The Obama administration suspended it in 2011.
Kobach said he considers Ashcroft a mentor because of how he approached his job as Missouri governor, senator and U.S. attorney general.
Ashcroft treated everyone across the political spectrum with respect and kindness, Kobach said.
But Ashcroft didn’t really care much about what the media said, Kobach said. And during the early years of the Bush administration, Ashcroft was willing to serve as a lightning rod and take heat so Bush didn’t.
And if elected governor, Kobach expects to draw a lot of heat.
He said he cares deeply about cutting taxes, ensuring gun rights and fighting abortion — in addition to his stances on illegal immigration and voter fraud, for which he is better known.
A lot of people on the left “are a little bit afraid” of what his administration will mean, Kobach said.
“We are going to be bringing all of these changes to Topeka and we’re going to be doing it in an aggressive way,” Kobach said. “No holds barred, no-retreat kind of way.”