Secretary of State Kris Kobach isn’t worried about potential political fallout from his decision to keep Democrat Chad Taylor on the ballot in the U.S. Senate races.
Political scientists predict the move could damage Kobach in his own re-election race against Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Democrat.
Kobach says he’s doing his duty of upholding the state’s election laws.
“If someone is upset at me for enforcing the law as it is clearly written and they want to vote against me for that reason, that’s fine,” he said last week. “My job is to enforce the law, not make it up. In my view, my electoral consequences have to be set aside.”
Taylor, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, submitted a letter to the Secretary of State’s Office to withdraw his name from the ballot, a move political observers said would benefit independent challenger Greg Orman in the race against longtime Sen. Pat Roberts.
Kobach determined that Taylor had failed to follow the letter of the law, which requires candidates to declare that they are incapable of serving in order to withdraw.
An open-records request confirmed that all other candidates withdrawing after the primary have made this declaration since 2010.
The Kansas Republican Party raised objections to Taylor’s withdrawal, which the party alleged was a plot by national Democrats. Kobach said he has not communicated with party officials on the matter.
Taylor, the district attorney of Shawnee County, filed suit against Kobach, the state’s top election officer. The Kansas Supreme Court will hear the case Tuesday and determine whether the Democrat’s name will remain on the ballot.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said the case will hurt Kobach politically regardless of the outcome.
“I think either way it’s not politically advantageous for Kobach. Just by him being involved, I think it riles up some voters,” Beatty said. “Orman is going after obviously the same type of voters as Schodorf is: moderate Republicans and unaffiliateds. If those groups go with Orman and then also with Schodorf, that’s a big plus for her.”
Taylor’s suit contends that Kobach should have recused himself from the decision on Taylor’s candidacy. Kobach, a former Republican Party chairman, is a member of Roberts’ honorary campaign committee, which Taylor’s attorney contends creates a conflict of interest.
Kobach recused himself earlier in the year when Roberts’ residency was challenged before the primary. He said that in retrospect he should have turned down Roberts’ request to be on the honorary committee but that it has had no bearing on his decision to keep Taylor on the ballot.
“Had I had any inkling that there would be any controversy surrounding this race, I of course would have said no and risked offending the senator, but these honorary committees are just usually meaningless,” Kobach said.
Tim Graham, a former assistant secretary of state, called Kobach a “hyperpartisan individual.”
“He’s not over there to do the job of secretary of state. He’s over there to do the bidding of a bunch of ideologues,” said Graham, who served under Kobach’s Democratic predecessor, Chris Biggs.
Kobach has come under scrutiny for his Prairie Fire PAC. The political action committee, which formed in 2012, has sent out mailers supporting conservative candidates and attacking moderates,
Kobach defended his political action committee, saying that it is meant to support candidates who support the policies that Kobach has promised to fight for, such as proof of citizenship in order to vote.
“That PAC supports candidates who support proof of citizenship and photo ID and it opposes candidates who don’t. So that PAC is in some ways an extension of my promise to voters that I will get these policies done,” Kobach said.
Beatty said the Secretary of State’s Office is inherently fraught with conflicts of interest but that Kobach’s partisan activities have been unusual for a secretary of state.
“Then when this Senate incident happens, he has less credibility because of his previous actions,” Beatty said.
Beatty cited polls from SurveyUSA and KSN-TV as indication that the controversy surrounding the Senate race was damaging Kobach politically. A poll conducted before Kobach rejected Taylor’s withdrawal showed him tied with Schodorf. One taken after shows him down 46 percent to 43 percent with less support from moderate Republicans.
“I’m not a rocket scientist, but one thing happened in between those,” Beatty said. He said the secretary of state’s race had flown under the radar compared to the race for governor, but the controversy has drawn attention to Kobach.
“All of a sudden, his name is across the state in newspapers and on TV, and at least according to that poll, it looks like some moderate Republicans were jolted and said ‘I’m willing to vote for Schodorf,’ ” Beatty said.
Schodorf, who served in the Senate as a Republican, has pounced on the issue. She accused Kobach of “dereliction of duty” last week.
“I want to know where he was. He owes it to the Kansas citizens to come clean and tell us where he was when Chad Taylor was in the office,” Schodorf said in a phone call. “It’s all shadowy. It’s hard to know exactly what happened. The Secretary of State’s Office keeps changing their story.”
Kobach would not comment on where he was when Taylor went to the Secretary of State’s Office on Sept. 3. Taylor said he was informed by Assistant Secretary of State Brad Bryant that he met the requirements to withdraw, which Bryant denies.
Schodorf accused Kobach of putting the “election in jeopardy.” She said that the Secretary of State’s Office should have made sure that Taylor’s letter met the requirements before accepting it.
“He is the chief election officer. The buck stops at his door, and he should have helped Mr. Taylor to come up with a correct wording,” Schodorf said. “It looks like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
She also said Kobach should have recused himself from the decision after the letter came into question.
Kobach has dismissed Schodorf’s criticisms.
“Jean Schodorf apparently would read the law to her personal preferences. And my question for Jean is this: What part of the word ‘declare’ don’t you understand?” Kobach said.
Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, said that few people are neutral on Kobach, but the dispute over the Senate race gives Schodorf an opportunity to win over moderate Republicans.
“That’s the sort of thing that might lead some moderate Republicans – even if they’re planning on voting for Pat Roberts anyway – to kind of be upset with the way that Kobach has once again inserted himself into this. He’s once again making it all about him,” Fox said. “If she can find a way to make the case that this is just par for the course … that could really play into the minds of wavering Republicans.”
He said Kobach still might be able to benefit from the dispute if Republicans can convince moderates that the Democrats are attempting to “steal the election” through an independent candidate.
Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he is not worried about blowback hurting Kobach’s candidacy.
“It will be over in a week one way or the other, because the ballots have to go out. Once it’s decided, I think everyone will move on and forget about it,” Barker said.
Ballots must be mailed to absentee voters overseas by Sept. 20.