The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kris Kobach couldn’t prove widespread voter fraud. Can he prove to voters that he can ‘Make Kansas Great Again’?

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach listens as Vice President Pence speaks at the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in July 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ELLINWOOD, Kan. — Kris Kobach is sweating, waving, smiling and, most notably, walking down the middle of Main Street here, a stop on his quest to become governor of Kansas. The Jeep — the one emblazoned with the American flag, with a fake machine gun mounted on top — is nowhere to be seen.

The faux gun caused quite a stir when Kobach first rode the Jeep in a parade in June. Not that it bothered Kobach.

“I’m certainly not going to stop using it because of their manufactured outrage,” he said.

He promised that the car would be back at future parades, replica machine gun and all. As Kris Kobach will remind you often, Kris Kobach never backs down.

Kobach’s political profile had looked to be on an upward, national trajectory, thanks to his support of President Trump and their joint appeals against illegal immigrants and what they define as voter fraud.

But lately, Kobach has taken some hits. A federal judge recently struck down as unconstitutional Kansas’s law requiring that people prove they are U.S. citizens to vote — arguably Kobach’s signature accomplishment as Kansas’s secretary of state — with the added indignity of ordering Kobach to take continuing legal education. Trump’s commission to investigate voter fraud, of which Kobach was vice chairman, was disbanded in January. Kobach has still never been able to offer evidence non-citizens have been illegally voting on the scale he has described for years. And, despite Kobach’s public embrace of firearms, the NRA endorsed his main rival in the Aug. 7 Republican primary.

Kobach finds himself focused back on Kansas, where he spent most of his childhood, and a crowded primary with six other Republicans. All of them must persuade skeptical GOP voters that conservative policies — and perhaps lower taxes — can still succeed in Kansas, even after former governor Sam Brownback’s steep tax cuts left the state’s economy, infrastructure funding and education systems reeling. The winner of the primary, state political watchers say, will have to go on to convince Kansans that he is not simply “Brownback 2.0.”

Because of what Brownback called his “real live experiment,” Republican voters this year are paying special attention to fiscal policy and education funding as much as they are to Second Amendment issues and abortion, said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold.

The scant polling available shows the primary race boiling down to Kobach, 52, and current Gov. Jeff Colyer, a 58-year-old surgeon and Brownback’s former lieutenant governor. (Brownback resigned in January to join the Trump administration as an ambassador at large for international religious freedom.)

“Everyone sees this as extremely neck-and-neck competitive right now,” Arnold said. “There’s still a lot of undecided voters out there. . . . It’s just, ‘How are they going to govern? What path are they going to take?’ ”

On most policy issues, the two candidates align more closely than they differ, but Colyer has tried to brand himself as a consensus-builder, while casting Kobach as too extreme and inflexible to get things done.

Colyer pointed to his support of an increase in school funding that Kobach had opposed.

“We’re both supportive of the president, but I’m about getting it done,” Colyer said. “It’s about workhorse versus show horse.”

Kansas is a deep-red state that Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. However, both campaigns are acutely aware that, since the 1960s, Kansas voters have never voted consecutive Republicans or Democrats into the governor’s office. Both Colyer and Kobach are hoping to break that streak.

Whoever wins will face the winner of the Democratic primary, and probably an independent candidate as well. The Democrats are engaged in a heavily contested primary of their own, one that includes former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, state Sen. Laura Kelly and former Kansas agriculture secretary Joshua Svaty.

Kobach, for his part, isn’t as concerned about separating himself from Brownback as much as he is in showing affinity for the Trumps. “Make Kansas Great Again” isn’t a catchphrase in the state — yet — but he’s trying to make it one with his copious tweets signed #MKGA. A couple of years ago, Kobach bonded with Donald Trump Jr. over hunting, and the president’s eldest son has traveled twice to Kansas to campaign for Kobach. (It remains unclear if the president plans to endorse anyone in the race.)

“I just think that he’s throwing all his chips in the primary on being the Donald Trump of Kansas,” Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said of Kobach. “I think he thinks he can sort of Trump his way all the way to the governorship.”

Kobach first saw the replica-machine-gun Jeep in April, during a turkey-hunting trip. His friend agreed to let him haul it to Shawnee on a trailer so Kobach could ride in it during the town’s annual parade in June. (The Jeep’s lack of doors made driving long distances impractical.)

The faux firearm drew headlines and articles quoting concerned parade-goers. After the parade, Shawnee officials issued an apology for it — but Kobach said the negative reaction was overblown.

“It was probably 99-plus percent of the crowd was thumbs-up, cheering, clapping, taking pictures with their phone,” Kobach said. “And then you had this less than 1 percent who are quickly tweeting how they didn’t like it.”

His campaign sent out a fundraising email to capitalize on what he called the left “losing their minds.” He vowed to win this fight, like he won in high school debate in Topeka, even if it meant appearing with the Jeep several more times.

“I really detest this kind of fake outrage politics of, ‘Okay, if we don’t like something, we’re going to act like we’re really, really offended. We’re going to protest it. We’re going to demand that it stop,’ ” Kobach said. “Guns have been in parades for as long as there have been parades.”

It is Kobach’s tendency to double down that has put him on a collision course with the courts over his efforts to prove and prevent widespread voter fraud, particularly by non-citizens. Soon after he was elected secretary of state, Kobach sponsored a strict new law that required Kansans provide proof of citizenship before they could register to vote.

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming about 35,000 Kansans had been prevented from registering under the new law. The civil rights group argued the state’s new requirements were intended to suppress voter participation, particularly among minority communities that are more likely to vote Democrat.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson struck down the law as unconstitutional. Over the course of litigation, Robinson also fined Kobach $1,000 for lying to a magistrate judge about documents and held him in contempt for violating orders to give voters information about their registration status. Kobach was ordered to attend six hours of continuing legal education classes for “repeated and flagrant violations of discovery and disclosure rules.”

In her ruling, Robinson — who was appointed by President George W. Bush — excoriated Kobach for presenting a handful of alleged voter fraud cases as “the tip of the iceberg.”

“This trial was his opportunity to produce credible evidence of that iceberg, but he failed to do so,” Robinson wrote.

“Instead, the Court draws the more obvious conclusion that there is no iceberg; only an icicle, largely created by confusion and administrative error,” she added.

Dale Ho, an ACLU attorney, called Kobach “the nation’s leading purveyor of lies about illegal voting to stir up fears and paranoia about our election system.”

“He had a chance to prove that non-citizens were registering to vote in Kansas in significant numbers. He couldn’t do it,” Ho said.

Kobach plans to appeal the decision.

He doesn’t mention these specifics on the campaign trail, except to occasionally say he’s fighting the “liberal ACLU.” He looks comfortable campaigning, even in the sweltering Kansas summer heat, even when he’s convincing prospective voters that the establishment elite is the problem and that he — a longtime politician who graduated from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, respectively — is the one who can “fix Topeka.” He talks quickly, using hand gestures to emphasize his points, like a debater defending his conservative positions against his predominantly liberal classmates.

Less than a week after the Ellinwood parade, Kobach hauled his friend’s Jeep 140 miles north to a parade in Holton.

“I will never back down, I will only double down,” he tweeted with a picture of children surrounding the machine gun replica. “I will Make Kansas Great Again.”