Topeka It's all about Kris Kobach.
The law professor who helped write Arizona's tough new immigration law is running for Kansas secretary of state. He promises to turn the state's top elections job — generally a government backwater that also handles business filings — into an aggressive, fraud-busting office.
He's a Republican, so he's drawn most of the attention in a three-person GOP race ahead of Tuesday's primary. And a big issue in the Democratic race is whether the incumbent secretary of state or a state senator would be more likely to beat Kobach.
Kobach has made the race one of the year's hottest in Kansas by tying illegal immigration to voter fraud. But is he getting the kind of attention that wins elections?
Even some Republicans who see his appeal to GOP conservatives don't think so. But he had the votes of Leroy and Jean Engle even before a recent forum at their Overland Park retirement community because of his work on immigration issues.
"Things are out of control, and we need to get control of it," Jean Engle said after the event.
In the GOP race, Kobach faces Shawnee County Election Commissioner Elizabeth Ensley, of Topeka, and J.R. Claeys, of Salina, a former chief executive officer of the National Association of Government Contractors who's monitored elections in Bolivia and El Salvador.
Secretary of State Chris Biggs faces a challenge in the Democratic primary from state Sen. Chris Steineger, of Kansas City. Biggs was appointed in March by Gov. Mark Parkinson, a fellow Democrat, after four-term Republican Ron Thornburgh resigned to take a private sector job.
The Democratic race has some color. Biggs, from Junction City, has a fondness for antique guitars and regularly played weekly gigs at a bar and grill outside Manhattan until his campaign activity picked up. Steineger, meanwhile, gained notoriety for attacking the escalating cost of the Statehouse renovation and proposing to merge Kansas' 105 counties down to 13.
Also, Claeys has raised eyebrows by dropping $300,000 of his own funds into his campaign, allowing him to outspend the other candidates. Asked where he got the money, he said, "I lived fairly modestly."
But Kobach operates on another plane altogether, sometimes dropping references to his appearances on national cable networks. He was late to the recent Overland Park forum because, after taping a segment for "NewsHour" on PBS, he got caught in traffic.
He's advised city and state lawmakers across the nation who want to crack down on illegal immigration. In mid-July, nearly 2,000 came to a rally he had in Overland Park with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Ariz.
Kobach promises that, if elected, he'll pursue legislation to require voters to show photo identification at the polls and proof of citizenship when they register.
Kobach says Kansas laws are lax enough that illegal immigrants can register. Last year, the secretary of state's office found 33 potential matches when it ran its registration lists against the state database of driver's licenses for foreign nationals.
"I've been able to bring a very clear message to the campaign," Kobach said. "If I'm not concerned about voter fraud, then I don't have to vote for Kris Kobach."
The secretary of state's office said it runs its check every year to combat potential fraud and notifies counties of results. Kansas has 1.7 million registered voters.
The three Republican candidates agree voters should show a photo ID at the polls.
"There's always somebody out there who would take advantage of the situation if they could, so we need to protect our elections," Ensley said. "But I'm not going to use scare tactics about it."
Biggs doesn't like imposing a photo ID requirement, saying it is an overreaction to a handful of incidents.
"I know that Kris Kobach has received some attention, and a lot of it is negative attention," Biggs said.
Steineger said he doesn't have strong feelings about photo ID, having voted for a proposal in 2007.
"There are very few cases of voter fraud in Kansas," Steineger said.
The Engles' support for Kobach and the crowd he drew for his rally with Arpaio suggests his message has resonated with voters, and he has strong support among tea party participants.
But J. David Mattox, city forester in Manhattan, questioned whether immigration is the "real neon issue" for most voters that it is for Kobach's supporters.
"In this part of the world, we've got a lot of other issues," Mattox said, after telling Biggs at a recent concert-fundraiser, "Where do I donate?"
Kobach also faces questions about why he's running for secretary of state, as opposed to attorney general, the state's top law enforcement job.
He said he couldn't finish work on pending immigration cases if he were attorney general, because it would present a conflict of interest. He said he'll have enough time to wind down such cases and work full-time as secretary of state.
But his critics are skeptical. Kobach also served as Kansas GOP chairman in 2007-09, and the Federal Election Commission later audited the party over bookkeeping and finance reporting issues, which Kobach blamed on his top staffer at the time.
Claeys said the secretary of state's office has been run well, which is why it never has generated much attention.
"That's part of the challenge: A lot of people don't know what the secretary of state does," he said. "The second it's run poorly, you're going to hear all about this office."