A storm is brewing in Kansas as Republicans Kris Kobach and Mike Pompeo could be set to face off in what would be one of the most hotly contested senate primaries in the nation.
A senate seat opened up in the traditionally red state following the retirement of 83-year-old, long-time Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. The seat is considered to be safely in Republican hands by several election prediction services, but recent polling suggests the party still has reason to be concerned. A poll made public last week by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) found former Kansas Secretary of State and immigration hardliner Kris Kobach with a big lead in the primary, leading his next closest challenger by 19%. (RELATED: Here Are The Five 2020 Races That Could Determine Control Of The Senate)
However, the same poll showed that would all change if Pompeo jumped in the race. The poll found the U.S. secretary of state and former Kansas Congressman garnering 54% of the vote in the primary, with Kobach way behind at 17%. Kobach’s emergence is troubling for the Republican establishment for several reasons. The first reason has to do with legitimate concerns about Kobach’s electability. Kobach has been a polarizing figure in Kansas politics for over a decade now, and was defeated by now-Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in a stunning upset in last year’s Kansas gubernatorial race. Kobach’s defenders would likely blame the Republican establishment and negative media coverage for his campaign’s failures, but polls have indicated that Kobach’s senate campaign may not fare any better than his gubernatorial campaign did.
After what happened in Alabama in 2017, and in Kansas last year, the possibility of losing another safe red senate seat is something that has to be making Republicans squirm. NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin reportedly sounded the alarms during a fundraiser at Trump International Hotel last month, asking attendees to urge Pompeo to run. The NRSC has staunchly opposed Kobach’s campaign from the get-go, accusing him of putting Republicans’ 53-47 senate majority at risk. (RELATED: Why Social Conservatives Don’t Trust Likely Georgia Senate Pick Kelly Loeffler)
“Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat. Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump’s presidency and Senate Majority at risk,”Joanna Rodriguez, the press secretary for the NRSC said after Kobach’s campaign launch in July. “We know Kansans won’t let that happen and we look forward to watching the Republican candidate they do choose win next fall.”
If Kobach were to win the election and become the state’s next senator, he would likely be a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans. Kobach is a legendary bomb thrower, and his hardline stance on immigration would infuriate the party’s embattled pro-business wing, which has long fought for amnesty for illegal immigrants and increased levels of legal immigration. Kobach also became the target of the media’s ire last year for his role leading the White House’s commission on voter fraud. Kobach has made combating voter fraud a top priority throughout his political career, and spent years as Kansas secretary of state battling left-wing advocacy groups in court, even referring to himself at one point as the “ACLU’s worst nightmare.” Kobach’s reputation as a warrior for conservative causes has endeared him to the party’s base, which helps explain why his political career has remained alive despite a failed gubernatorial campaign, and the risk his senate candidacy poses for the Republican Party’s slim majority in the senate.
The biggest question Pompeo’s candidacy would pose would be how Trump would respond. Like much of the Republican establishment, the secretary of state and former CIA director has cozied up to the president, but it wasn’t always that way. Pompeo was a harsh critic of Trump during the 2016 campaign, warning that he would be an authoritarian leader. On the other hand, Kobach has been a long-time Trump loyalist, becoming one of the first major Republican officials to endorse then-candidate Trump in February 2016, and has remained a trusted adviser of the president on his signature issues of voter fraud and immigration.
The president returned the favor last year when he gave Kobach a last minute endorsement over incumbent Republican Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer. Kobach narrowly defeated Colyer in the primary shortly after the president’s endorsement. Trump’s decision to endorse a primary challenger to a sitting Republican governor was unprecedented, and demonstrated just how close the two are. Kobach has frequently been rumored for cabinet posts in Trump’s administration and has pledged to fight for the president’s agenda if elected. Would Trump dare buck the Republican establishment again to endorse Kobach, or would he support Pompeo? If the president stays out of the race, polling suggests it will be Pompeo’s to lose. But, if Trump endorses Kobach, it could be a whole new ballgame in Kansas.
Despite Kobach’s shocking loss in last year’s gubernatorial race, there are legitimate reasons to believe the senate race would be different. Unlike 2018, 2020 will be a presidential election year, and the last Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state was President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Trump will likely carry the state by double digits again, and Kobach may simply be able to ride the president’s coattails into Washington. Senate races also present a different dynamic than gubernatorial races. While gubernatorial races tend to mostly focus on local issues, senate races are more focused on national issues, such as immigration, which is Kobach’s bread and butter. There’s also the fact that Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since the 1930’s, the longest streak of any state in the union. (RELATED: The Four Ways Washington Can Fix America’s Immigration Crisis)
So, with history (and perhaps the president) on Kobach’s side, there is reason to believe that Republicans could nominate him without losing the seat. If the Kansas senate race comes down to Kobach and Pompeo, it will be fascinating to see if Republican voters in the state choose pragmatism or idealism.