Elections

Inside Kris Kobach’s losing Kansas campaign: ‘Check logic and reason at the door’

Kris Kobach: ‘This one just wasn’t God’s will’

Kris Kobach thanks supporters after conceding to Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s race Tuesday.
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Kris Kobach thanks supporters after conceding to Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s race Tuesday.

Kris Kobach blamed money. He blamed history. He didn’t blame himself for losing a race for governor in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1.

“Obviously, if we’d had more money to spend on TV we probably would have done so,” Kobach said Tuesday night. “But no, in terms of the decisions made or how we structured the campaign, no, I don’t think we made any critical errors like that.”

Kobach’s campaign was marked by his parade appearances on a jeep with a mounted replica machine gun, a rally with rocker Ted Nugent and his fiery debate performances where he derisively compared suburban public school buildings to the Taj Mahal.

But behind the scenes is where the circus really took place.

Interviews with more than a dozen Republican strategists and officials paint a picture of a candidate who refused to listen to advice, was unwilling to put energy into fundraising and failed to set up a basic “get out the vote” operation.

The criticism of Kobach’s management of the campaign comes amid speculation that he could be a contender for posts in President Donald Trump’s administration, including U.S. attorney general.

Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, struggled to pay his campaign staff on time and at one point lacked a working phone system at his Johnson County campaign office, according to GOP sources familiar with the campaign. And people who offered to volunteer were never contacted.

“It was the most dysfunctional thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said a long-time GOP operative in Kansas.

Kobach trusted that his regular presence on cable news, dominance in headlines and the full-throated support of Trump would carry him to victory, strategists told The Star. He also expected independent Greg Orman to siphon more votes from Democrat Laura Kelly than he actually did.

Two weeks out from Election Day when polls showed Kobach in a tight race with Kelly, members of his senior staff did a walk-through of the governor’s office, according to a Republican source.

“Is there nothing else you can be doing with your time right now?” the source recalled thinking. “The joke was, you’d say ‘the Kobach campaign’ and (then) you’d say, ‘what campaign?’”

Kobach won his primary against Gov. Jeff Colyer by 343 votes after Trump endorsed Kobach on the day before the election.

“Primary elections should not only be focused on finding the right ideological fit, but on finding a candidate who’s willing to put in the work necessary to win the general election,” said Scott Paradise, a Republican consultant who works in both Kansas and Missouri.

“It didn’t appear that Kris Kobach seemed all that interested in working on the things that mattered, like fundraising, grassroots organizing, or asking voters for their support.”

Kelly crushed the Kansas Republican in fundraising and won nearly 46,000 more votes in the GOP-leaning state, handing the Republicans their first loss in a statewide race in 12 years. She methodically crisscrossed the state and scored endorsements from every living former governor except for Sam Brownback.

“We got outspent,” Kobach’s campaign manager J.R. Claeys said the day after the election. “It’s hard to deliver messages when you don’t have the resources to get them out to everybody.”

Kobach spent roughly $2 million between the launch of his campaign and end of July before his primary showdown with Colyer in August.

But he spent less than $1.4 million from the end of July through Oct. 25, a period in which Kelly spent $2 million, according to campaign finance records.

Most of Kobach’s money came from his running mate, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman, who sank more than $2.2 million into the race, records show. Republican strategists say Kobach’s fundraising woes were self-inflicted.

One GOP official received a phone call from a Republican donor who was pleading for a phone call from Kobach because the donor wanted to give to the campaign, but Kobach never called.

“Kris didn’t deserve to win,” said the Republican official familiar with the matter. “He does things his own way, check logic and reason at the door. I think it’s probably for the best that he didn’t win.”

The poor fundraising kept Kobach from doing heavy TV advertising until October in a state where early voting starts on Oct. 16.

Down ballot GOP candidates have traditionally been able to rely on candidates for governor or senator raising millions of dollars that would go toward turnout efforts. That didn’t happen this year.

“We had to do it on our own. And we found a way to make it happen,” said Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who oversaw a statewide turnout effort for legislative candidates.

As a handful of races go down to provisional ballots, it looks like the party will keep its 85-seat majority in the House despite Kelly’s victory and GOP losses in the Kansas City suburbs.

“We basically ran each (Kansas) House race as if it was its own individual congressional or gubernatorial race,” Ryckman said.

Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair, said “every top-of-the-ticket campaign runs the strategy a little bit differently.”

Kobach’s campaign focused on messaging, Arnold said, while former Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts had focused their successful campaigns in recent elections on turnout efforts.

This strategy enabled Brownback to pull off a victory in 2014 despite polls showing him trailing his Democratic challenger for months. Brownback’s campaign knew which voters it needed to turn out.

“Kobach was the anomaly,” said Clay Barker, the state Republican Party’s former executive director who worked on Gov. Jeff Colyer’s unsuccessful primary campaign.

Barker noted that every other statewide Republican won by at least 95,000 votes and the party’s congressional candidates outperformed Kobach by large margins.

“He ran a poor campaign — anemic fund raising, failure to focus on voters’ top issues, no or ineffective statewide voter turnout program, and it seemed disorganized… One person told me he seemed more interested in talking to the media than in doing what it took to win a Governor’s election,” Barker said in an email.

Kobach rejected the suggestion that his campaign did not build a turnout operation on par with previous nominees.

“Lots of people fancy themselves political experts on how to win campaigns,” Kobach said Wednesday. “We knew from Day 1 that we would need an aggressive ‘get out the vote’ operation.”

No party has held the Kansas governor’s office for 12 years since 1957, Kobach noted. He said his campaign knocked on thousands of doors across the state.

He blamed his loss on Kelly’s fundraising advantage and “the fake narratives that schools are starved... and that I’m Brownback.”

Republicans sources said Kobach was encouraged to soften his stance on school funding, a dominant issue in the state’s most populous counties. Instead, he doubled down on making illegal immigration the focus during the close of the campaign.

Kobach’s “very matter of fact, he believes what he believes,” said Samantha Poetter, Kobach’s former spokeswoman.

“But on the personal aspect, he has an amazing heart and is extremely loyal and caring,” she said. “And sometimes that overshadows his judgment on staff. He’d rather hire somebody who is loyal but not necessarily good than somebody that is good and not loyal, which made it difficult for the professional campaign staff to do what was needed to win.

“Sometimes in a campaign you need the good, and not the loyal.”

While Colyer endorsed Kobach after the primary, some of the governor’s staffers were privately relieved when Kelly defeated Kobach Tuesday night, an administration staffer said.

“For the most part, there’s just not a lot of folks on our side that are very disappointed (in Kobach’s loss) other than, unfortunately, a Democrat is in charge of our state. We wish it was our own boss,” the Colyer staffer said. “At the end of the day, it’s hard to say that our state would have been better off with Kris Kobach as governor, at least from our view.”

As he held one of his daughters at his hushed election night party, Kobach wouldn’t contemplate the idea that some Republicans in Kansas might be celebrating his defeat.

“I don’t know why they would be,” Kobach said.

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