The four women, in their 70s or 80s, bubble with excitement. They’re about to see the man they hope will be the next Kansas governor and maybe, one day, president.
Jacki Cahill, 81, clad in a red American flag T-shirt and a silver elephant necklace, came with her sister and two neighbors from her retirement village in Basehor to see Secretary of State Kris Kobach in Lansing.
“How many times have we heard him speak?” she says, turning to her sister. “At least 10 or 15. We went to Topeka once to see him when they was protesting outside. We was in Overland Park when that Sheriff Joe (Arpaio) was there and they had a bomb threat. We was in the second row. Kris said, ‘I’m going to give a speech, that’s what I came here for.’ I looked at my sister and said, ‘We’re going to sit here and listen to it.’ ”
Cahill agrees with Kobach on immigration, saying “we’ve got do something about those illegals,” and praises his push for voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws. What the women like most, they say, is that Kobach keeps his promises.
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Kobach enjoys intensely loyal support from conservative voters who flock to see him at grassroots events and tune in weekly to hear him on the radio. This August night in Lansing, he has drawn about 70 people, three times as many as the usual speaker, Republican organizers say.
But he demurs when people push him to say he will run for higher office, like governor, in 2018. He says he is focused on doing his job, which will include prosecuting alleged cases of voter fraud starting in October.
During the most recent elections, he was able to produce twice the number of volunteers to go door to door for the party as Gov. Sam Brownback or U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts could, said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “The intensity of his supporters is stronger,” Barker said.
The same could be said about the intensity of his detractors, who warn that he’s a dangerous extremist and accuse him of race-baiting.
Kobach has had “a devastating impact on voting rights in the state of Kansas and, for that matter, across the country,” says Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
Kobach championed a proof-of-citizenship requirement to register to vote, a policy that has left thousands of prospective voters in suspended registration status since January 2013. Beginning this week, his office will remove any names that have been on the suspended list for more than 90 days.
He says this will save local election offices money, but the ACLU says it is primarily meant to relieve Kobach of the political embarrassment of having nearly 37,000 prospective voters in suspended registration status. He calls that ridiculous.
Charges of racism
Kobach speaks for nearly an hour to the crowd in Lansing. He uses no notes and encourages attendees to throw him questions. He darts from topic to topic.
He compares Planned Parenthood to the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and blasts President Obama for opposing congressional Republicans’ efforts to defund it. “You couldn’t even write a science fiction book about politics in America that would be this weird,” he says.
Kobach encourages the ousting of moderate Republicans from the Kansas House, whom he accuses of being Democrats in disguise. He then brings up the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and warns “it’s going to get worse, not better, for those of us who believe in the traditional family.”
Eventually a man stands up and asks Kobach when they will have the pleasure of voting for him for governor. A woman shouts, “No, president!”
Judy Wells, an attendee from Leavenworth, praises him as fearless. “He just goes on no matter how much he gets attacked,” she says.
Danilo Balladares, executive director of Sunflower Community Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for the Latino and African-American communities in Wichita, said Kobach’s policies keep minority voters away from the polls and that his rhetoric about voter fraud instills “fear in white conservative voters.”
“It’s minority voters, it’s immigrant voters who are going to be scared to vote, who are likely not to have IDs, and it doesn’t mean they’re not citizens,” Balladares says. “And you’re also race-baiting another group.”
Kobach has faced charges of racism since his failed congressional bid in 2004.
It’s an accusation he calls ridiculous.
“It’s just so sad that term’s being used just to describe someone who’s a conservative,” Kobach says.
The man who asked Kobach to run for governor in Lansing was Latino: Jose Morales, a member of the Leavenworth school board. Morales, originally from Puerto Rico, a commonwealth whose residents are U.S. citizens, says he agrees with Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship policy.
Kobach contends that the argument that minority voters can’t provide proof of citizenship or show ID at the polls is itself racist. He says the political left uses charges of racism as a shortcut.
“If you call someone on the far left end of the Democratic Party spectrum a socialist, you’re exaggerating their ideological position,” Kobach says. “That’s different from hurling a personal insult at someone and calling them a racist. That’s personal. That’s going after their motivations in their heart. I think one is a lot worse than the other.”
Kobach says he eventually became numb to the attacks but that they bother his wife, Heather.
“When people criticize him, my first reaction is sickness … sick to my stomach,” Heather Kobach says in a phone call. “I guess I try to remember that people who criticize him, they don’t know him at all. They know a caricature of him.”
She says her desire to shelter her children from this played a role in the couple’s decision to home-school their five daughters.
“When they read something terrible that somebody said about their daddy, I’d like to be there to explain it to them,” she says.
Despite his wife’s discomfort with his public image, Kobach does not shy away from media attention.
Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt typically communicate through e-mailed news releases. Kobach calls reporters on his cellphone. He says he enjoys sparring with the media, explaining that he was a “debate geek” in high school.
In his office, he has a framed Newsweek profile from 2011 that calls him “America’s Deporter in Chief” and a courtroom sketch that CNN used when it was covering an immigration case that Kobach tried in federal court.
Kobach has also decorated his office with the mounted heads of two bucks he shot on his Douglas County farm and with photographs of his daughters, ages 4 months to 11, whom he takes hunting.
Sometimes the girls accompany Kobach to his radio show. If they can be silent for the whole two hours, they get to go turkey hunting with him as a reward.
Kobach’s weekly radio show on KCMO Talk Radio has given him a forum no other politician in the state has. He says the show makes him more accessible to citizens.
But it also has stirred controversy – including last year when he did not rebuke a caller who asked whether Obama’s immigration policies could lead to ethnic cleansing of whites.
During a July episode, Kobach launched into one of his favorite topics: illegal immigration.
“It is a fact that there is an illegal alien crime wave that has left thousands of Americans dead over the past decade or so. It’s not an imaginary thing based on one or two cases,” Kobach says. “There are many, many Americans who are no longer with us. They are dead because of illegal aliens who came to this country and committed horrible acts of murder.”
Later, he contends that the number of Americans killed by illegal immigrants is “far more than the number of Americans killed” by the Islamic State and that thousands of lives would be saved by constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, says that rhetoric “puts a bull’s-eye on the backs of all Hispanics, Latinos and immigrants and makes us vulnerable to the extreme nature of those words that inspire hate and hate crimes.”
She cited a case in Boston in which a man arrested for attacking a Hispanic man cited presidential candidate Donald Trump as his inspiration.
Murguia, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., calls Kobach a forerunner of Trump and says his activism helped create “the current highly toxic atmosphere” on immigration that has helped propel Trump.
Kobach says his comments about illegal immigration are not aimed at any particular race and that it “is certainly not implied, nor is it factually correct, that when you say ‘illegal aliens’ you mean Latinos,” since there are illegal immigrants from every racial group.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who Kobach once called a “Maoist” on his radio show, sees a parallel between Kobach’s activism on immigration and U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s crusade against suspected communist sympathizers in the 1950s.
“Joe McCarthy loved the headlines and spotlight as well when he went on his anti-communist tirade,” Hensley says.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, says that “what Kobach has been able to do – which in some ways is politically brilliant – is marry the voting issue with illegal immigration.”
When Kobach talks about immigration, he uses “illegal alien” instead of “illegal or undocumented immigrant.” His critics say that dehumanizes illegal immigrants, but he defended the term as legally accurate because federal law uses the phrase “an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States.”
“I think the use of terms like ‘undocumented immigrant’ – it’s really improper because it’s legally incorrect,” Kobach says.
Kobach has worked as an attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers suing the Obama administration and helped write Arizona’s controversial law that allowed police to detain a person if there was a reasonable suspicion he or she was an illegal immigrant.
“If we could clone him, you know, we would prevail everywhere,” says Mike Hethmon, an attorney for the Immigration Reform Law Institute who has worked with Kobach on numerous cases. Hethmon praised Kobach as a constitutional scholar and skilled debater in the courtroom.
Roots in 9/11
Kobach, who holds a law degree from Yale, traces his focus on illegal immigration back to his time at the U.S. Justice Department working under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom he calls his most important mentor.
He started working for Ashcroft the week the Sept. 11 attacks took place in 2001. He was tasked with investigating loopholes in the immigration system.
“All of them came in legally, but then five of the 19 (hijackers) became illegal at some point during their stay. … They successfully abused our immigration system, and much of my time at the Justice Department was occupied in trying to plug the holes that they had exploited in our system,” Kobach says.
He says that the impulse to restrict immigration dates to the founding fathers, referring to the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts passed during John Adams’ presidency and notes that some immigrants were turned away at Ellis Island.
Beatty says “politics revolving around the fear of the other” has been a centuries-old strategy in U.S. politics. He compared Kobach’s stance on illegal immigration to rhetoric used by nativists in the 19th century, when Irish immigrants came to the country in large numbers during the potato famine.
While Kobach’s stand on the issue has made him a figure of scorn for opponents, it has endeared him to supporters who see him as “a man of action,” Beatty says.
“It’s very black and white when he talks to his supporters. ... He makes it really simple: Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re the good guys,” Beatty says.
Back in Lansing, the crowd applauds as Kobach ends his speech with a stinging attack on the Kansas Supreme Court. People line up to speak with him, and he spends the next half-hour listening attentively to each person’s concerns as his aide takes notes.
Cahill marvels at his ability to speak with passion on an array of topics without any notes. After a pause, she touches her chest and says, “I think it’s in his heart. I really do.”