Opinion: AG race is revealing about the GOP

Despite the fervent support the Republican leadership has given to the Value Them Both amendment, its fate on Aug. 2 may not tell us much about the current Kansas GOP. But the Republican contest for Kansas attorney general, by contrast, may actually tell us a great deal.

Three candidates are campaigning for the Republican nomination: former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who needs no introduction to Kansas voters; Kellie Warren, a state senator and attorney with a background in civil law; and Tony Mattivi, a former federal prosecutor with a long track record of criminal conviction on both the state and federal level. Mattivi, whom polls put in third place in this race, makes his lack of a history of political engagement part of his campaign against Kobach and Warren–and that is what makes this Republican fight so interesting.

It is not that Mattivi has no political opinions. His strong conservative beliefs, including firmly opposing abortion rights and strongly supporting gun rights, are prominently displayed in his campaign literature. And yet it is the fact that he also insists an attorney general should not spend time on politics, always filing lawsuits against the Biden administration (as Kobach has promised, with Warren concurring) that presents Kansas Republicans with a difficult choice.

Two things are clear about Kobach. First, he has devoted Republican supporters who see in him, with his attacks on the threats supposedly posed by illegal immigrants and President Joe Biden, a Kansas version of their beloved leader, Donald Trump. Second, those supporters do not constitute a majority of the Kansas Republican electorate, much less Kansas voters overall. He is not, in short, a consensus candidate — and lacking that consensus support, many other Republicans fear him as a divisive spoiler. At a recent Mattivi event in Wichita, one prominent Republican elected official stated with great confidence that, should Kobach win the nomination, Democrat Chris Mann’s election to the attorney general office would be assured.

I disagree with this official that a Kobach nomination would necessarily mean a loss for the Republicans in November, but the many prominent Republicans and conservative organizations behind Warren’s candidacy provides evidence of how widespread that fear is. Warren’s strategy is to reach out to the very same zealous conservatives who support Kobach, as well as the major donors who once did, with one simple argument: I’m actually electable, and Kobach isn’t.

Ordinary campaign politics suggest that when two conservative candidates fight over the same faction, a path opens up for moderate candidates to win. This, however, is not something Mattivi is doing — not officially, anyway. He knows the Kansas Republican primary electorate well, and knows that a moderate tone would open him up to fervent attack. And yet, perhaps taking a nonpolitical tone instead when it comes to national or cultural controversies, preferring to talk about fighting criminals rather than Value Them Both, is what passes for moderation in 2022. (That the abortion amendment will likely bring to the polls more of Kansas’ small Republican moderate population than is typical for an August election may be part of that quiet calculation too.)

The attorney general contest shows us Kansas Republicans playing a guessing game with the future of their party. Will Kobach’s ideological convictions return him to power? Are his extreme opinions a winner, so long as someone else expresses them? Or are a plurality of Kansas Republican voters supportive of a conservatism that, while passionate, focuses on the job rather than fighting a culture war? Mattivi’s bet on the latter is a long one, but an admirable one too.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.

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