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

Pompeo Stays Put, For Now

According to both The New York Times¬†and The Wichita Eagle, which are usually reliable sources, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won’t be coming home to Kansas to run for an open Senate seat. This is a big deal all over an uneasy world, but especially so here in our beloved Sunflower State.
The news was surprising to us, but only slightly so. Secretary of State is a more prestigious title than junior Senator from Kansas, and far more lucrative in a post public service career, but we’re sure that even such an ambitious fellow as Pompeo was tempted to return home to Kansas’s welcoming arms. Any old Senate seat is plenty prestigious and potentially lucrative, Pompeo almost certainly could have had a safe one for as long as he wanted. and with a presidential impeachment trial looming and a potential war with Iran brewing and Pompeo up to his neck in all of it the Senate surely seemed a more placid sinecure.
He was intrigued enough by the possibility to spend a lot of time in Kansas in for someone with such a busy international schedule, some of which was spent having discussions about fundraising with the state’s biggest Republican donors, and he was encouraged to resign and run by some high-level Republicans in the state and national party.
The Republicans are facing an unfavorable Senatorial election map next November and worry about retaining their slight majority in the chamber, so current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted Pompeo to lock down the Kansas seat, Trump gave his blessings to the idea, and the state’s Republican party establishment was equally keen on the idea. Kansas has been reliably Republican in federal elections since it entered the Union as a free state after its bloody prologue to the Civil War, and will probably vote Republican once again no matter how the primary turns out, but it’s within the realm of possibility that it won’t.
For now the frontrunner in a crowded Republican primary field is former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost a gubernatorial race to impeccably moderate Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly back in November ’18. As the state’s Secretary of State Kobach earned a national reputation for his tough stance against illegal immigrants voting in Kansas elections, which led to Trump appointing him to head a federal commission to prove that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for more than there million illegally cast votes, and he now fully identifies as a a Trump loyalist, but so far none of it worked out for him.
The voter identification laws that Kobach lobbied for are reasonable enough, so far as we can tell from our regular voting, but the Harvard grad with the Yale Law School degree decided to represent himself in a lawsuit brought against him by the American Civil Liberties Union, and he wound up proving only nine cases of voter fraud and paying significant fines for contempt of court and proving the old axiom about how a lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client, or vice a versa. Kobach’s federal commission was disbanded before proving that Trump actually won the popular vote, in part because such Republican states as Mississippi and Kansas defied his orders on state’s rights grounds, and his continued fealty to Trump hasn’t been much help.
Trump easily won the state’s electoral votes last time around, but that was because he was running against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and he’ll probably win again next time around, but that’s because he’ll probably be running against some even crazier Democrat. Which is not to say Trump is particularly popular around here. He finished a distant third in the Kansas caucuses back in ’16, the trade wars that have plunged commodity prices haven’t played well with the farmers and cattlemen, his anti-Hispanic rhetoric doesn’t resonate in a state whose southwest quadrant is economically dependent on Hispanic immigrants, and neither the church-going small town Christians nor the educated suburbanites like his style.
The Kansas Republican party is currently in a sorry state, too, for a variety of reasons of strictly local interest. Our old pal Gov. Sam Brownback, who we know to be a good and well-intentioned guy, purged all the cautious Republican types from the legislature and enacted a radical agenda of tax cuts and spending cuts, and although we liked the idea in broad outlines the details turned turned out to objectively blow a hole in the state budget, with deficits piling up despite severe cuts to what even old-fashioned Republicans would consider essential state services. There were various other scandals about corruption and voter suppression, too. That’s how Kobach wound up losing the governorship to an impeccably moderate Democrat, and McConnell is right to worry it’s within the realm of possibility he might wound up losing to a similarly moderate Democrat in a Senate race.
We wouldn’t say it’s probable, though. The crowded Republican field includes Kansas Senate President and impeccable Kansas conservative Susan Wagle, who is almost as irksome to the state’s Democrats as Kobach, and Rep. Roger Marshall from Kansas’ ranch-and-farm First District, who has occasionally dared to voice disagreement with Trump’s trade wars and immigration policies, and either could win the primary and then the general election. At this point Kobach seems a less sure bet, but we wouldn’t bet against him given the state’s long history and stubborn nature.
Pompeo would have been the surest bet for that safe Senate seat, given his extradorinaiy name recognition and formidable fund-raising prowess and the lingering affection he enjoys here in the Fourth District, where he easily won four terms with our votes, especially if he could somehow distance himself from Trump. According to our usually reliable reliable sources at The New York Times and The Wichita Eagle he’s clinging tight to Trump’s ship of state through times of impeachment trials and impending war, however, and we hold out faint hope he gets through it with his once impeccable reputation intact.

— Bud Norman