Kansas Democrats Seek to Oust Secretary of State Kris Kobach

The politician has long been a lightning rod for Democrats. This fall, they think they have a chance to beat him.
by | September 17, 2014

Kansas Democrats have long complained that Kris Kobach has done more to help the Republican cause as secretary of state than he managed to do as state GOP chair. Now they are trying to convince voters he is simply too partisan to keep his office.

Kobach has long attracted controversy. He had an unusually high profile for a secretary of state, thanks to his support for strict voter identification requirements and his sponsorship of measures combating illegal immigration in other states such as Arizona and Alabama.

With Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's reelection prospects in trouble, Democrats are hopeful they might be able to unseat Kobach this fall, too.

"I think they're pulling each other down," said Ed Flentje, a political scientist at Wichita State University. "The fact that Kobach's numbers have dropped is... an indication they are hurting each other."

Kobach has other problems, too. On Tuesday, the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in a case against Kobach brought by Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Pat Roberts.

Taylor dropped out of the race earlier this month in favor of an independent, but Kobach ruled he hadn't made the right moves to have his name removed from the ballot. That decision would benefit Roberts, as the opposition vote could remain split.

Kobach is an honorary chair of the Roberts campaign, so Democrats insist he should have recused himself from the matter.

"Once again, he's playing partisan politics," said Dakota Loomis, communications director for the Kansas Democratic Party. "His focus is doing what's best for Kris Kobach, his politics and his agenda."

The controversy appears to have hurt Kobach, drawing not only harsh editorials but dragging down his poll numbers. Kobach had been running ahead of his Democratic opponent, Jean Schodorf, but a poll last week by SurveyUSA showed her leading, 46 to 43 percent.

That lead was not statistically significant, but the fact that Kobach's support among Republicans had dropped nearly 20 points probably was.

Republican officials say that voters will forget about the ballot controversy and conclude that Kobach was in the right.

"I think the people who believe in following the law will support the secretary," said Samantha Poetter, communications director for the Kobach campaign. "His opponent has flat-out said she will not follow the law."

But even if the current ballot battle calms down, Kobach's fortunes could remain tied to those of Brownback. Most polls show the governor trailing narrowly in his race.

The three races -- for governor, senator and secretary of state -- seem increasingly entangled in voters' minds, Flentje suggests.

"I can see folks going in and being mad at one or two of them and voting against all three of them," he said.

The question of whether secretaries of state have favored their own party in their role as chief election officers has been of paramount concern in recent election cycles. Super PACs have come on the scene this year strictly to elect or target candidates for this formerly sleepy position.

Just about every election cycle has seen complaints from one party or the other that a secretary of state has attempted to tip the scales, whether it was questions about presidential voting in Ohio in 2004 and 2008, or the eight-month-long recount following the U.S. Senate election in Minnesota in 2008.

Figures such as Kobach who appear openly partisan have become targets in several states. Scott Gessler, his Republican colleague in neighboring Colorado, was widely criticized by Democrats as one-sided in his handling of the office. (He ran unsuccessfully for governor this year.) Republicans, for their part, are spending heavily to try to prevent the election in Iowa of Brad Anderson, who served as President Obama's state director there in 2012.

Democrats would especially love to take out Kobach, their bete noire on issues such as requiring applicants to offer proof of citizenship when registering to vote.

For Schodorf, revenge would be particularly sweet. She had served in the state Senate as a Republican before being ousted, along with eight of her colleagues, by more conservative candidates who enjoyed backing from Kobach and Brownback in the 2012 primaries.

"The problem is the baggage Kobach's had," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. "He has his own PAC and been criticized for that, and is a former chair of the Republican Party. All those things have piled up that possibly could make some moderate Republicans willing to vote for Schodorf."

Beatty emphasized that the race is quite close and that neither Kobach nor Schodorf has begun advertising aggressively.

But he said that history might repeat itself. In 2006, Republican Attorney General Phill Kline was soundly defeated by a former Republican running as a Democrat after he had come to be seen as too polarizing.

"This year reminds me a little bit of that race," Beatty said. "At some point, voters just decided it was too much, he had gone too far. That's possible this time. It may not be Brownback but it could be Kobach."