August 11th, 2020

The Nation

Dems are running an ad to push a Trump-supporting GOP candidate for Senate

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published July 31, 2020

LIBERAL, Kan. - The ad blends right in with the miasma of pre-primary campaign commercials. An army of identical men in suits marches across the screen. A Senate candidate floats through the Washington "swamp" in a cartoon canoe, as a narrator praises his outsider rival.

"Mitt Romney Republicans and Never Trumpers are coming for Kris Kobach," the voice warns. "They think Kobach's too conservative."

Republicans aren't running that ad. It's one of four placed by the 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 the Aug. 4 primary against Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan. Joe Biden's party considers Kobach the easiest 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 Sunday, 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."

Nobody disputes this - not the Democrats who think Kobach is beatable, and not the Republican establishment figures who fear the same thing. The Harvard, Yale and Oxford-educated Kobach is arguably the most influential Republican politician of his generation in writing restrictive immigration policies and hunting, if often in vain, for voter fraud.

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.

"He's a failed candidate who failed President Trump and failed the Kansas people," Marshall 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."

Kobach's 2018 defeat was the first of his electoral career, which began when he 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, he lost.

Kobach has thought a lot about why. He doesn't dispute the criticisms flung at him two years ago, 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 blow away turnout models 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], 'OK, 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."

In Washington, Republicans didn't want to hear it. There was a months-long campaign to nudge Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from Wichita, into the race, on the assumption that he'd lock up the primary. Among those who failed to convince Pompeo was the president himself, angry to have spent political capital on someone who didn't win.

That left Kobach competing with a crop of little-known candidates and Marshall, he congressman from the 63-county "Big First" district, who had gotten started in politics by ousting a flamboyantly conservative incumbent in a 2016 primary. Rep. Tim Huelskamp had angered party leaders and gotten kicked off the Agriculture Committee; Marshall promised to get onto the committee, and did.

Marshall's win was a triumph for the Republican Party's establishment, which at the time was already investing to stop far-right candidates from winning primaries. But Marshall, who supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign, arrived in Washington with Trump. It wasn't an obvious fit at first, with Marshall telling a crowd of Republicans in 2017 that he didn't "know how we're going to pay" for the president's border wall. Two years later, he supported Trump's request for border wall money, and in the final debate last month, Marshall said he "will always support the president's policy on immigration," emphasizing his 100% record of supporting those policies.

At a Sunday night meet-and-greet in Garden City, his last before returning to Washington for coronavirus relief negotiations, Marshall's pitch to Republicans emphasized his relationship with Trump. He reminisced about an Oval Office meeting in which the president pushed the red button on his desk, which, rather than unleashing nuclear armageddon, ordered him a Diet Coke. ("He's obviously done that to a few congressmen.") And he talked about working with a reelected president to replace the Affordable Care Act, in a prime position as the head of the Republican Study Committee's health-care task force.

In an interview after the speech, Marshall stressed how well he worked with the president. Asked how well the president had handled the coronavirus outbreak, Marshall gave him an "A+," and said his decisions had prevented a greater catastrophe.

"On January 28th, I think I was the first member of Congress to talk on the House floor about how serious this was going to be," Marshall said. "And the president's ban, the travel ban, I think saved hundreds of thousands of Americans lives. Maybe more. The other thing that no one's talking about is when he saw that the CDC was failing in getting the testing set up, he went ahead and pivoted to getting the private sector set up as well."

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Kobach's campaign stops were just as heavy on praise for the president, mixed with the argument that he could be doing even more, if only more Republicans stood by him. At times, his examples could be obscure; he told several audiences about the 2014 primary that pitted conservative legislator Chris McDaniel against then-Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, another battle for the heart of the Republican Party, but one that got little attention in Kansas. At other points, as when one Kansan asked whether there was a way for DACA recipients to get a path to citizenship, Kobach was ready with the specific, dramatic policy agenda he'd bring to the floor of the Senate to strengthen Trump's hand.

"If we conservatives are going to give up something like that, we need something in return," Kobach said of DACA. "That can be like finishing the wall, like ending sanctuary cities, like closing all the loopholes in our asylum, like getting rid of the visa lottery, which gives about 50,000 visas randomly to people around the world with no regard to the U.S. national interest." In an interview, Kobach added that he supports the president's continued effort to end the DACA program, after the Supreme Court halted that effort.

Republicans' attacks on Kobach have not focused on his policies. Plains PAC, the vehicle for their anti-Kobach material, repeatedly emphasizes that he lost in 2018 and previews how Democrats might attack him - he had not been antiabortion at the start of his political career, and he parted ways with a white nationalist who helped his campaign. There was some evidence that its ads had gotten through to voters, as Kobach got questions at nearly every stop asking him to refute them.

"If I'm a white nationalist, I'm not a very good one," Kobach joked at stops in Bucklin and Larned. "My campaign manager is Jewish, and my communications manager is Black."

Kobach added that he was confident that the president, whom he continued to talk to, would stay out of the race. Trump's silence has avoided the sort of drama that brought down Jeff Sessions in this month's Alabama runoff for U.S. Senate; it also has avoided some of the nastiness of next week's Senate primary in Tennessee, where a Trump-endorsed candidate has struggled against an insurgent backed by some prominent conservatives.

The result is a race that looks a lot like the Kansas GOP's 2018 primary for governor, in which the close and bitter outcome left Kobach with the nomination but not much money. Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who left that party in 2018, 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 an interview, Bollier did not say who she'd prefer to run against, arguing that any Republican would have to answer for the policies that alienated Kansas two years ago.

"We've lived through the horrible Brownback experiment," Bollier said. "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."

Both of the leading Republican candidates say that they'll do the same, and that listening to Kansans means supporting the president. And messy primaries have not stopped Republicans from winning Senate races in Kansas. In 2014, retiring Sen. Pat Roberts was badly damaged by a conservative primary challenger; in 2010, a similar "establishment"-versus-conservative race was decided by single digits.

Kobach's closing argument is that both of those elections produced amiable Republicans who did not make waves - good enough to control the Senate, not good enough to deliver everything the president and conservatives wanted. The primary, he said, was preparing him for a full-on war against the old GOP.

"When I do win this thing, G od willing, I will be even more loud and make more noise than I would have otherwise," Kobach said. "OK? Because they're going to pay for this."