An Uncivil War in the Kansas Republican Party

Our old-fashioned “flip phone” made that strange warbling sound that announces the arrival of a new text message, and it turned out to be one of the oddest political videos we’ve ever encountered.
The ad was an attack on former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the leading contenders in largely overlooked Republican primary race to choose a nominee to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring longtime Sen. Pat Roberts. There are plenty of valid reasons to criticize Kobach, including concerns by many traditional Republicans that he could lose to a moderate woman Democrat in the race just he did in the gubernatorial election less than two years ago, but that’s not what the advertisement is about. Produced by a political action committee called Keep Kansas Great PAC, which says “We support candidates who will stand with President Donald Trump to defeat the extreme liberal agenda,” the ad accuses Kobach of insufficient fealty to Trump and Trumpism.
Which comes as a surprise to most Kansans. You needn’t be a Kansan to have heard of Kobach, whose staunch opposition to be illegal and legal immigration as Secretary of State made him a nationally known figure and endeared him to Trump. Kobach was appointed chairman of a commission charged with proving that voting by illegal immigrants was the reason for Trump’s 3 million ballot loss in the popular vote, has been an outspoken advocate for anything Trump might say or do, and has carefully copied Trump’s flamethrower rhetorical style. His current campaign slogan is “Make Kansas Great Again,” and he proudly touts his ties to Trump and the praise the president has showered on him.
The Kobach commission was disbanded before it could write a report, largely because both Republican and Democratic governors refused to comply with his requests and efforts to nationalize voting, with even Kansas being bound by state law from providing requested information, and Kobach suffered another embarrassment when he chose to defend a controversial Kansas voting law that was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and not only lost but wound up paying expensive fines for multiple counts of contempt of court. Then he lost the gubernatorial election to Gov. Laura Kelly despite Kansas being a reliably Republican state and despite Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement.
Trump still wanted to make Kobach his “immigration czar,” but changed his mind when Kobach had a list of exorbitant demands that included a private jet, and thus the Keep Kansas Great PAC has some basis for saying in its ad that “Kobach let President Trump down.” The ad also rightly notes that Kobach has the financial support of the Club for Growth, a well-funded-by-billionaires PAC that promotes a low-tax small government agenda which was pretty much the quintessence of Republican conservatism until Trump, and it staunchly opposed to Trump’s candidacy in the ’16 election. Since then the Club for Growth has retreated from presidential politics altogether and focused on electing budget hawk candidates to Congress, but Trump of course still holds a grudge against the Club for Growth and so do his die-hard supporters even though they probably continue to agree with everything the organization stands for.
The ad only attacks Kobach and doesn’t endorse anyone else, but elsewhere the Keep Kansas Great PAC has endorsed state Rep. Roger Marshall, who seems intent on running as a even Trumpier than the exceedingly Trumpy Kobach. Marshall is also an obstetrician and gynecologist, and the Club for Growth paid for attacks ads in the state’s biggest newspapers featuring patients who criticized the doctor’s “bedside manner,” which is all the more reason for Marshall to attack the Club for Growth and its past anti-Trump blasphemies.
A third very viable contender in the race is Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a longtime state legislator who is very conservative who has always tried strike a moderate tone, but has lately been trying to out-Trump her competitors.
A traditional and NeverTrump Republicans who are watching this from the political sidelines, none of this makes much sense.
Trump easily won the state’s electoral votes when he ran against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, just as any old Republican nominee would have done, but Trump has never been overwhelmingly popular in this state. He came in a distant third in the Republican caucus, even the state’s Republican congressmen dhave dared criticize the Trump trade wars that have ravaged the state’s dominant and export-dependent agricultural and aviation industries, and Trump’s unapologetic amorality is still troubling to a certain portion of the state’s many Christians. Latino immigration is pretty much all that’s sustaining what’s left of economic activity in the southwest quadrant of the state, and plays a peaceable and productive role in the economy and culture of the urban areas, so nativism isn’t so appealing to the general population as some Republicans seem to believe.
The Club for Growth style of conservatism is currently out of fashion, too. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback proposed proposed a rather extreme policy of severe tax and budget cuts, helped a majority of like-minded candidates win primaries over more cautious Republican majorities and get it passed, and although we liked it in theory it objectively didn’t turn out as promised in taxes. The ensuing budget deficits led to cuts in spending on education and roads and prisons and other essential states that alarmed the sorts of good government conservatives who had dominated the Republican party since Kansas entered the Union as a free state loyal to the party of Lincoln. That’s how Kansas wound up with a Democratic governor and a legislature that’s still majority Republican only because the old establishment fuddy-duddies won a lot of primaries against the firebrands.
Kansas has long been willing to send Democrats to Topeka but has very rarely sent them to Washington. The last Democratic Senator from Kansas was way back during the Great Depression, he only lasted one term, and usually Senatorial elections are a foregone conclusion around here. This time around seems different, though, and the way things are going there’s an outside chance the state’s Grand Old Party might well continue its recent losing streak. In the midterm election a Native American lesbian kick boxer won a House seat in the educated and affluent northeast, a more moderate Democrat almost won another seat, and only the moderate Republican who’d wrested the First Congressional seat from a fire=breathing Club for Growth favorite won by the usual Republican landslide.
The Democrats seem likely to nominate state Sen. Barbara Bollier, an ex-Republican and retired anesthesiologist who reminds us a lot of our currently popular Democratic governor, who shut down the schools early on and imposed strict shutdown rules in response to the coronavirus and is currently doing better in the statewide approval polls than Trump, and the sporadic polling that’s been done in the largely overlooked shows her in a very tight race with the front-running Kobach. Between now and election day either the economy will be tanking or the coronavirus death toll will be spiking, and no matter which outcome Trump chooses he will have trouble blaming it on Democrats or immigration.
A moderate Republican willing to distance himself or herself from Trump while defending his more sensible policies would probably do well against a moderate Democrat obliged to oppose everything Trump does, but that candidate apparently can’t win a Republican primary. At least that’s what the leading contenders seem to think.

— Bud Norman

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