Kansas’ Kobach Is Weighing a Senate Bid. National Republicans Are Ready to Stop Him

May 20, 2019by Lindsay Wise, Bryan Lowry and Jonathan Shorman

WASHINGTON — National Republicans are prepared to intervene in the Kansas Senate primary to ensure that conservative firebrand Kris Kobach does not win the party’s nomination should he run, multiple sources told the Kansas City Star.

Kobach said this month that he is still “actively considering” a bid for the U.S. Senate next year in Kansas. The seat will come open with the retirement of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, 83, who announced in January that he would not run for reelection.

Any anti-Kobach efforts by groups such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee or the Senate Leadership Fund likely would take the form of undermining Kobach without actively supporting any of the other GOP candidates running against him.

“They’ll do some actual spending if it comes to that,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a publication that analyzes U.S. Senate and Governors races. “They’ll talk about electability, they’ll talk about some of his controversies. I don’t think they want a slash-and-burn effort, but their goal will be to disqualify without at this point getting behind a candidate.”

Kobach’s former campaign manager, State Rep. J.R. Claeys, denounced the national Republican opposition to Kobach.

“The swamp in D.C. is wide and deep,” said Claeys, who said he was authorized to speak for Kobach. “It wouldn’t be the first time the D.C. establishment came after a true conservative here in Kansas. Kris stands with President Trump — he’s tough on illegal immigration — and these sorts of attacks show the establishment is soft on that issue.”

National Republicans getting involved in an open primary race would be unusual, but not unprecedented. The National Republican Senatorial Committee — the GOP Senate’s campaign arm — has indicated it would do the same thing in Alabama if Roy Moore runs again.

Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama state supreme court, narrowly lost a Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The NRSC’s executive director Kevin McLaughlin said in February that the committee’s official stance is “ABRM: Anyone But Roy Moore.”

The NRSC has made no such official statements about Kobach, but the committee told The Star on Friday that the NRSC’s job is to win elections, and the committee reserves the right to ensure that there is a candidate who can do so. The NRSC said it already has met with several candidates who can beat Kobach.

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner is the only GOP candidate who has formally declared in the race.

But a long list of other prominent Republicans have expressed interest in running and have met with the NRSC, including U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb and Wink Hartman, Kobach’s former running mate.

NRSC officials have told Kansas Republicans privately that if Kobach enters the race, the committee would get involved to make sure he doesn’t make it past the primary, multiple sources told The Star.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super political action committee run by allies of Mitch McConnell, also will not rule out an effort to keep Kobach from winning the GOP nomination.

“We haven’t made any decisions about engaging in Kansas, but given the party’s loss in the gubernatorial race last year, it is vitally important that we put our best foot forward in the Senate race,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the fund, in a statement.

“I’m confident there would be steps taken inside the White House and among other Republicans to head off yet another Kris Kobach disaster,” David Kensinger, who has managed successful statewide campaigns in Kansas for Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Some Republicans in Washington and Topeka are fed up with Kobach after a long series of political stumbles, dating back to his failed run against Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore in 2004 and his tumultuous tenure as chairman of the Kansas Republican Party later that decade during which the party struggled with financial problems.

His 2018 loss in the race for governor was the final straw.

Kobach, who was then serving as Kansas’ Secretary of State, squeaked out a win over Colyer, the sitting governor, in the Republican primary after by a last-minute endorsement by President Donald Trump. But he lost the general election to Laura Kelly, a Democrat.

She defeated Kobach by nearly 5 percentage points in a state where Republicans have a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage.

Kobach struggled to keep pace with Kelly in fundraising. He relied on Hartman to bankroll the campaign. Hartman, a Wichita oil magnate, is exploring his own potential run for Senate.

GOP operatives complained about the campaign’s disorganization, the lack of a strategic turnout plan and Kobach’s unwillingness to listen to advice or temper his hardline message to reach moderate voters in the general election.

“We’ve already paid too high a price for his ego,” said Kensinger, who supported Colyer.

And then there’s the fact that Kobach is controversial. National Republicans don’t savor the idea of other 2020 candidates having to respond to possible controversial statements or actions by a candidate Kobach.

Kobach is currently serving as a board member and general counsel for We Build the Wall, Inc., a controversial nonprofit that says it is raising money to build a border wall through private funds.

“With $20 million or so, you can actually build more wall than you think. Now, under the federal standards that would only get you about a mile because the contracts being awarded are roughly in the range of $17 (million) to $18 million,” Kobach said May 9.

The Daily Beast reported May 10 that donors that have given money to the group are growing concerned by the fact the organization hasn’t begun building. The nonprofit originally had indicated that construction on a wall would begin in April.

“There will be a big announcement when we build,” Kobach said, explaining that he could not reveal the location where construction will start.

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Shorman reported from Topeka, Kan.

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©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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