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A Republican Battles To Keep His Job In Deep-Red Kansas

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform in Washington, D.C., in April. Kobach's challenger, Democrat Jean Schodorf, promises to stay closer to Kansas.
Jacquelyn Martin
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform in Washington, D.C., in April. Kobach's challenger, Democrat Jean Schodorf, promises to stay closer to Kansas.

If you saw Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach meeting with half a dozen supporters in an Kansas bar recently, you might think that he hadn't come all that far from his childhood in Topeka, where his dad owned a Buick dealership.

But this smiling, enthusiastic guy holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, and he's a national stalwart of the anti-immigration movement.

"I have been involved in restoring the rule of law in immigration," he says. "That means trying to stop the lawlessness in the Obama administration, and that also means defending states like Arizona."

Kobach is a conservative Republican in a deeply red state, but this year, he is struggling to win reelection, and some of his GOP brethren are turning against him.

Kobach not only wrote the Arizona immigration law, the toughest in the country, he defended it before the Supreme Court.

"Kris Kobach is really, in many ways, the national poster boy for tough-minded anti-immigration legislation across the country," says Burdett Loomis, political science professor at Kansas University. "He has aggressively moved into writing ordinances and then defending those ordinances in city after city, state after state."

Kobach's far-flung immigration battles have left some Kansans wondering if his heart is really in his secretary of state job. Absolutely, Kobach says.

"It's about the rule of law for me, and that's a common thread with respect to my duties as secretary of state, because there, too, we want to see legal, fair elections where there's no voter fraud," he says.

Under Kobach, Kansas became the first state to require proof of citizenship for everyone registering to vote. Kobach says the requirement has blocked the registrations of a dozen or so non-residents.

But the law has also kept at least 18,000 would-be Kansas voters from registering, and that has sparked a backlash against him.

"I appreciate his interest, but I don't think he's protecting me from anything," says Mark Buhler, a Republican who has served in the state Senate. Buhler says he voted for Kobach last time, but this year he is supporting the Democratic challenger.

Jean Schodorf was a moderate Republican state senator. Ousted by the conservative wing of the party, Schodorf is now a Democrat, running against Kobach on a pledge to ease voting restrictions and to stay close to the secretary of state's office.

"I will be a full-time secretary of state, full time, for the people of Kansas, and not Arizona!" she said at a recent pool-side fundraiser.

Schodorf is polling about even with Kobach, which is remarkable: In Kansas, Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-to-1.

Some see a swing back toward the center in Kansas politics. If that happens, it could dislodge Kobach and other national mainstays of the conservative movement.

"In the state of Kansas, a Democrat can't win just by depending on Democrats and unaffiliated," says Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University. "He or she has to have those moderate Republicans."

Beatty says Kansas moderate Republicans are peeling away to support Democrats, and not just in the Kobach race. The state's incumbent Republican governor, Sam Brownback, and three-term U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts are also in trouble this election.

Copyright 2014 KCUR 89.3

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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