Republicans aren’t airing that ad. It’s one of four placed by Sunflower State PAC, created by Democrats to help Kobach, Kansas’s former secretary of state and one of his party’s most divisive figures, power through Tuesday’s GOP primary against two-term Rep. Roger Marshall.
Democrats consider Kobach the easier candidate to beat, but the primary unfolding across the state looks like Trump-era primaries everywhere: a Republican family feud over who would deliver more for the president.
“I meet with the president whenever I’m in D.C.,” Kobach told a room full of Republicans in this small city on July 26, near the end of one of the “Constitution 101” town halls he mixes with traditional campaign events. “I talk to him on the phone all the time. I’ve been advising him on immigration policy since 2016.”
But two years ago, Kobach ran for governor and lost to Democrat Laura Kelly, a striking result in this conservative state. Images from that campaign still appear in his TV ads, suggesting the blessing of a president who has not weighed in on the race. Without an official intervention, national Republicans have created a PAC of their own to stop Kobach, often recycling attacks — as the candidate never fails to note — that originated with liberal magazines or think tanks. The upshot, every time, is that there is only one candidate in the race who has fumbled away an election.
Kansas is one of two states with GOP Senate primaries this week that have a back-to-the-future outlook, with Tennessee voters similarly choosing between an establishment-backed candidate and an insurgent conservative trying to lay claim to the true ideological mantle.
There, Bill Hagerty, most recently ambassador to Japan, has the full backing of President Trump and appeared to be cruising to a victory in the primary, which would make him the prohibitive favorite to win the general election given Tennessee’s conservative lean.
Trump tweeted Friday, “@BillHagertyTN, an outstanding man and one of the best Ambassadors ever (Japan), is running an excellent campaign for the Senate. He loves Tennessee and loves our Country. We need him badly in Washington. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
But Manny Sethi, a trauma surgeon who runs a health-care nonprofit, has caught a late burst of momentum in the race that drew the attention of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), both of whom endorsed Sethi.
Cruz and Paul are backing candidates that they believe embody the more true version of Trumpism, more ideologically rooted as anti-immigration.
But their moves also give a hint of how, if Trump loses in November, this constellation of conservatives hope to recreate the same sort of ideological challenges to Republicans that dominated primaries in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
With the president focused on his own teetering reelection campaign, these forces have felt more freedom to challenge candidates that Trump has endorsed or other establishment figures are supporting.
On Thursday, former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — who resigned in 2012 to take over the Heritage Foundation, trying to refashion it into an anti-establishment force — jumped back into the political fray to support Kobach.
“There’s no doubt that @KrisKobach1787 has a proven record we can trust to fight to stop amnesty, secure our borders, and advance pro-life policies. We need him in the Senate,” DeMint said Thursday, tweeting his endorsement.
That prompted an immediate denunciation from one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top political advisers, who blamed DeMint’s work early last decade for helping nominate candidates who were too conservative to win in the general election.
“The guy who was single-handedly responsible for Republican minorities in the senate for two cycles has entered the chat,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager, said.
McConnell (R-Ky.) is backing Hagerty. In Kansas, while he and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have not officially endorsed a candidate, close allies have spent millions of dollars on ads to benefit Marshall.
McConnell and his allies thought they had vanquished this crowd after winning every primary in 2014 and then finally claiming the majority. McConnell used the 2017 Alabama special election, in which Sen. Doug Jones (D) defeated a wounded anti-establishment figure, Roy Moore, as a teaching moment for Trump, who ever since has mostly supported candidates backed by McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
But now, with Kobach possibly winning the nomination Tuesday, Trump has fallen silent, offering no endorsement.
And the cycle of nominating ideological flame throwers, who take relatively safe Senate seats and put them in play, might be about to repeat itself.
Waiting in the wings is state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who left that party in 2018 and with the Democrats’ blessing, has raised more money than Kobach and Marshall combined. As of July 15, she had $4.2 million left to spend, while Marshall was down to $1 million and Kobach less than $150,000.
In Tennessee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed James Mackler, an Army veteran who fits the mold of the successful 2018 House candidates.
Neither of these states would normally appear on a Democratic target list. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932 and Trump won the state by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, but Kobach’s candidacy has provided a potentially big opening. Trump won Tennessee by more than 25 percentage points; a Sethi victory would at least prompt the DSCC to closely watch Tennessee.
In an interview, Bollier, who is also a physician, did not say whom she’d prefer to run against, arguing that any Republican would have to answer for the policies that alienated Kansas two years ago.
“The farmers are struggling under the power of Trump and they want to be able to have good jobs and good economics. And they want their day-to-day needs met by someone who will listen to them,” she said.
Marhsall is trying to drill home something that Democrats and Republican establishment figures all agree on: Kobach’s controversial past makes him beatable in the general election.
“He’s a failed candidate who failed President Trump and failed the Kansas people,” he said in an interview. “It’s nothing personal. But there was a poll in Kansas about 18 months ago — it was called the governor’s election. He lost that, and now we live with the consequences of a Democrat as governor, whether it’s wearing masks or closing our schools or closing our businesses.”
When it comes to restrictive immigration policies and hunting, if often in vain, for voter fraud, Kobach is arguably the most influential Republican of his generation.
The Harvard, Yale and Oxford-educated candidate captured the secretary of state’s office in the 2010 tea party wave. Capitalizing on the controversies around ACORN, a community organizing group with an expansive voter registration program, Kobach obtained new powers for his office and began tightening voter registration rules and pursuing lawsuits to punish suspected voter fraud. At the same time, he shaped Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law, which gave police new powers to detain undocumented immigrants and barred “sanctuary” policies.
When Trump arrived in Washington, Kobach had already written much of his agenda; when Trump created a short-lived panel to investigate “voter fraud,” Kobach was on it.
And then, back home in 2018, he lost.
He doesn’t dispute the criticisms that he raised too little money, hired the wrong staff and led a disorganized campaign. But he points out that he got 20,000 more votes than Sam Brownback, the last Republican governor, got in 2014. He argues that Brownback’s unpopular education cuts powered the Democrats’ campaign and helped them in the suburbs of Kansas City.
“If you win a race, you virtually never go back and analyze what you did right or wrong. You think, ‘Oh, we did everything perfectly,’ ” Kobach said. “After 2010 and 2014, we didn’t go back through and analyze every little detail. But in 2018, we did. And we looked exactly [at], ‘Okay, where should we have gotten more votes? What could we have done differently?’ The Democrats very effectively used the K-12 spending issue as a sledgehammer against Republicans, and they would have done that to any nominee.”
Marshall, a physician who represents the 63-county “Big First” district, started in politics by ousting a flamboyantly conservative incumbent, Tim Huelskamp, in a 2016 primary.
But Marshall, who supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential bid, arrived in Washington with Trump.
He questioned the cost of the president’s border wall proposal in 2017, but flipped that position after Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) announced his plan to retire, creating an open Senate seat. In a final debate last month, Marshall said he “will always support the president’s policy on immigration.”
In an interview, Marshall gave Trump an “A+” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Considering the pandemic-mandated restraints on traditional retail politics in other states, this primary is taking place in almost a different world, a place where the virus “washed” away, as Trump initially predicted. In Kansas, cases spiked in late June and July after the state moved into a third phase of reopening allowing groups of up to 45 people.
On Sunday and Monday, at events across western Kansas, Marshall and Kobach frequently shook hands with voters.
Marshall, who volunteered at a hospital treating patients with covid-19, admitted that he struggles with his own actions, trying to wear a mask in more populated areas but falling in line with Trump-approved customs in the rural spots.
“It is really tough for me to sort out here,” Marshall said. “In rural areas, where the incidence is so low, Kansans don’t like the mask, and they want to shake my hand.”
He said he has taken three tests so far, all negative, and that he is doing all he can to defeat Kobach and not spread the virus.
“I know I’m meeting lots of people,” he said.