Opinion: Will Kansans go for Kobach again?
Meet the new Kris Kobach. Is he the same as the old Kris Kobach?
Before Kobach narrowly won the Republican primary for governor in 2018, an independent group supporting then-Gov. Jeff Colyer ran an ad featuring the tagline “Call Kris Kobach. Tell him we can’t afford his antics.”
Kobach is rebranding this year as he runs for attorney general in Kansas, downplaying alleged voter fraud and presenting himself as the candidate that will sue Joe Biden (meaning, the federal government) over a host of different issues, including the U.S.-Mexico border.
What were the “antics” mentioned in that commercial? To answer that, a brief history of Kobach’s career is in order. An anti-immigration activist long before Donald Trump ever sought public office, Kobach never avoided the spotlight. While working as a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kobach started his political career as an Overland Park city councilman. He then made two unsuccessful runs, one for state Senate and one for Congress, all while filing lawsuits and assisting lawmakers in other states like Alabama and Arizona in writing anti-immigration laws.
At about this same time, Kobach chaired the Kansas Republican Party. His signature act was to propose a “Loyalty Committee” that would determine which Republicans truly deserved the party’s support. As documented in a 2012 investigative report by the Hutchinson News, Kobach left the party in disarray, less than $5,000 in its treasury and multiple Federal Election Commission fines both for unpaid taxes and acceptance of illegal contributions.
Kobach was elected Kansas secretary of state in 2010 and set to work immediately remaking the office. Formerly known for nonpartisan coordination of elections as well as business licensing, Kobach remade the office into a clearinghouse for investigations into alleged voter fraud, particularly directed at undocumented immigrants. Kobach championed the Secure and Fair Elections Act in 2011, which made him the only state secretary of state in the U.S. with the power to prosecute voter fraud. His quest yielded only 13 individuals successfully prosecuted. None were undocumented immigrants.
Kobach was also a stalwart defender of the SAFE Act in court. While this job would normally fall to the state attorney general — Derek Schmidt (now running for governor) — Kobach was more than happy to use his own time and his office’s resources to defend the law’s provision that one must prove one’s U.S. citizenship when registering to vote, typically with a birth certificate. This is known as a proof of citizenship law, and it had already been struck down in other states by court rulings. Kobach defended the law personally in two cases, Fish v. Kobach and Bednasek v. Kobach, decided together in 2018. I served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs (the ones challenging the law) in Bednasek. Appointed to the bench by George W. Bush upon a recommendation from Sam Brownback, Judge Julie Robinson not only permanently enjoined the proof of citizenship law from being enforced, she also ordered Kobach to take continuing education law classes or lose his license to practice. Among other things, Kobach did not follow the standard legal procedure known as discovery during the course of the trial.
As a candidate for governor in 2018, Kobach edged out Colyer by 343 votes in a primary election supervised by Kobach’s own office. He then lost to Laura Kelly in a three-way race that included Independent Greg Orman. Perhaps Kobach’s most memorable moment of that election was when he rode in a parade on a float that featured a simulated machine gun.
That’s a lot of history. Will Kansans really believe that Kobach has changed this year? We will find out in November.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.