Kris Kobach has been quick to say a tweet from President Trump endorsing him fueled his insurgent victory in the Kansas Republican primary for governor.
He’s now betting a full-on rally with the president will help him come out on top in the general election.
Saturday’s rally in Topeka holds potential risks and rewards for Kobach, as well as Steve Watkins, the Republican candidate for the state’s Second Congressional District whom Trump will also be supporting.
Images of Trump and Kobach side by side on Saturday may excite Republicans in much of the state, but could prove a turn off to voters in the state’s Third Congressional District, located near Kansas City. Polls show Democrat Sharice Davids leading Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder there.
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And there’s the risk that Trump will say something explosive.
At a rally this week, Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual abuse. A repeat performance Saturday night could damage Kobach in the Third District, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.
“You never know what Trump’s going to do at a rally. For example, bringing up Dr. Ford in his last rally is something that up in the third district could really motivate women to vote against Kobach,” Beatty said.
Kobach told reporters Friday he has no concerns about what the president might say.
“I think it’s great when the president goes off script and talks about current events. I expect that he might say something depending on what’s happening in the United States Senate and the Kavanaugh vote. And this, indeed, might be the first time after a vote that the president is speaking at a public event,” Kobach said.
Trump remains popular across much of the state and a recent poll put his statewide approval rating at 55 percent. But Trump’s support drops to 46 percent in the third district, which also includes Johnson County, the state’s most populated county and a bastion of Republicans.
Statewide, Kobach is locked in a tight race with Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly. Recent polls show her and Kobach virtually tied.
An Emerson College poll conducted in late September showed Watkins behind his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, but within the margin of error.
‘Rally his troops’
At the rally, Kobach and Watkins don’t necessarily need to change voters’ minds, Beatty said. They need to convince Trump supporters to vote.
“The mid-terms are often about motivation,” he said.
Kansas GOP chairman Kelly Arnold suggested that Trump’s presence may excite non-Republican Trump supporters to back Kobach and Watkins.
“Kansas was a good state for President Trump in his election for president, and the president is coming here to rally his base, rally his troops to get out and vote. And that’s not just Republicans, that’s unaffiliated (voters), that’s actually Democrats, too,” Kelly said.
Dick Jones, a former state lawmaker who supports both Trump and Kobach, said the rally will do “tremendous things” for Kobach.
He dismissed concerns that Trump’s rhetoric could be damaging politically.
“The fact is, in spite of the deficiencies in Kansas education, we are a literate people. And if you listen to what Trump says, he doesn’t say what he’s being accused of on the left of saying,” Jones said.
Carol Sterling, a Trump and Kobach supporter who lives in Wichita, said when Trump comes to a rally, he speaks to people like he is in their homes. Sterling is only a year younger than Trump (Trump is 72) and has followed his life closely. She said she’s always admired him.
Asked about criticism of Trump’s rhetoric, she said she’s unbothered by it. Trump says the things that others feel like they can’t, she said.
Trump is brave enough to say the things that have always been on the minds of conservative Republicans when it comes to illegal immigration and a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sterling said.
“Now, there’s people that say that on an everyday basis just in passing or at church or the grocery store. But we’ve finally got a president that stands up and says what we all have had on our mind. But when you say that, you get criticized for it or people might think they might get fired from their job or whatever,” Sterling said.
Zachary Mueller, with the group Kobach is Wrong for Kansas, said Kobach will effectively own whatever Trump says on stage Saturday. Mueller’s group and others plan to protest outside the Topeka Expocentre Saturday while Trump’s rally is held inside.
“Whether or not Kris Kobach says the exact same language as Donald Trump, he continues to echo that and continues to be a fervent, adamant supporter,” Mueller said. “What Donald Trump says, and Kobach refusing to stand away from that, I really do think that he’s claiming that as his own.”
Trump returns the favor
In some ways, Saturday’s rally will bring the Trump-Kobach relationship full circle.
Kobach was the first statewide elected official in Kansas to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign, and even stumped for the New York businessman ahead of the state’s Republican caucus.
Even though Sen. Ted Cruz won the Kansas Republican caucus, Kobach’s bet on Trump ultimately paid off: Trump won the election, and Kansas continued its decades-long record of backing the Republican presidential candidate, with Trump beating Democrat Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 36 percent.
Now Trump is returning to Kansas – this time as president – to return the favor.
Trump endorsed Kobach for governor in the final days of the Republican primary race. Kobach later credited the tweeted endorsement with helping him win a razor-thin contest against Gov. Jeff Colyer. In the end, Kobach prevailed by fewer than 350 votes.
Since Trump’s election, Kobach has highlighted his proximity to Trump, touting phone calls with the president. He also served as vice chair on Trump’s now-defunct commission on election integrity.
“It has been a great privilege to work with President Trump’s administration as a transition team member and informal adviser, and I look forward to working with him closely when I am Governor of Kansas,” Kobach said in a statement when Trump’s visit was announced.
As the rally approaches, Kansas Democrats have largely responded by either attacking Kobach or painting him as out of touch for his focus on the president. Largely missing? Attacks on Trump.
Fundraising pitches from the Kansas Democratic Party noting Trump’s visit haven’t included explicit criticism of Trump.
Instead, they’ve focused on Kobach: A message sent Wednesday said Kobach was “more focused on the bright lights of the national stage than the voices of everyday Kansans.”
“One thing that happens is if you’re in Kansas third district, yeah, you’re probably going to talk about Trump … if you’re anywhere else, you’re probably just going to say: ‘Look, Trump is Trump. I’m running in my own race,’” said Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic national committeeman.
Reeves noted that Kobach is less popular than Trump in Kansas. An Emerson College poll conducted late last month said about 46 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of Kobach, while 38 percent had a favorable view.
Still, Trump’s rally may offer possible benefits to Democrats, Beatty said. Democrats will be able to use images of the rally in the third district – the district where Trump is the least popular in Kansas, he said.
“The downside is it may invigorate a bunch of Trump voters throughout the state and the second district,” Beatty said. “But the upside could be to use this visit against them in the third district.”