As of Tuesday, after a chaotic week of ballot-counting and threats of a recount, Kobach is also the Republican nominee to become the state’s governor.
This was the outcome Democrats wanted. Whereas Kobach’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, was seen as an electable, middle-of-the-road Republican, Kobach is a lightning rod. Kobach’s years-long war against phantom voter fraud and close ties to President Trump have made him a polarizing figure saddled with liabilities, presenting Democrats with an in.
But nonpartisan political scientists say that, thanks to a variety of factors, Kobach is actually favored to defeat Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly. Rather than vanquishing a politician loathed by progressives nationwide, Democrats may wake up in November with Kobach running the state.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Kansas’ Washburn University called it a “be careful what you wish for” situation.
“A lot of people said Trump would be the easier candidate to beat,” he pointed out.
On the left, Kobach is loathed for authoring stringent anti-immigration legislation, helping to draft Trump’s Muslim ban, and instituting proof-of-citizenship and voter ID laws that prevented thousands of Kansans from voting. Kobach has also used taxpayer funds for unsuccessful efforts to defend those laws in federal court.
But Beatty and other Kansas political experts told TPM that Kobach doesn’t have the same firebrand reputation in the predominantly conservative state that he does on the national level. He’s well-liked by the state GOP and his controversial voting policies have support among a significant chunk of the electorate (though Republican lawmakers did pass, then drop, a provision to stop Kobach from using state money to pay contempt fines leveled against him by a federal judge in the proof-of-citizenship case).
Critically, the governor’s race will also not be a head-to-head matchup. Instead, it’s a three-way contest between Kobach, Kelly, and independent candidate Greg Orman, a socially liberal businessman.
“A Democrat in Kansas basically needs every vote he or she can muster to possibly win,” Geoffrey Skelley of polling site Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told TPM.
“My expectation is Orman will win single digits, it’s just a question of is it high? Does it get up to 10 percent?” Skelley asked. “I think there’s a chance he’ll fade a bit. But it’s a problem for Democrats.”
The Crystal Ball, run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, left the governor’s race as “lean Republican” following Kobach’s win.
No polls have yet been conducted on the general election. A July poll from GOP polling firm Remington Research Group had the two top candidates in a dead heat, with Kelly leading with 36 percent and Kobach taking 35 percent. Orman had 12 percent.
Orman has offered no indication that he would suspend his campaign in order to stop a Kobach victory, tweeting last week that suggestions he do so are “devaluing the opinions of unaffiliated voters & fed-up Ds/Rs alike.” Dropping out entirely is not even an option thanks to a 2015 Kansas law passed in the aftermath of the 2014 Senate race maneuvering that bars candidates from taking their names off the ballot once they’ve been officially nominated. (Kobach’s office is currently vetting the thousands of signatures Orman submitted on Aug. 6 to get on the ballot).
Ironically, Democrats cleared the decks for Orman back in 2014 before that law was changed, withdrawing their Senate candidate out of fears of splitting the vote. Orman running as an independent lost to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts by over 90,000 votes.
The GOP primary results also carried some potentially troubling news for those hoping for a Kobach loss, according to Kansas Republican strategist Karl Hansen.
The race came down to provisional ballots, which are handed out in-person when elections officials aren’t sure whether an individual is eligible to vote in the district, or at all. Colyer was banking on them breaking his way, but they did not.
“Typically your provisionals come from people who haven’t voted in a while or are unfamiliar with the process,” Hansen said. “So that indicates there were a lot of new folks who came out to vote for Kobach, even in the suburbs where the typically more moderate candidates or Democrats would be looking for votes.”
Some Democrats went into emergency mode as soon as Colyer conceded on Tuesday.
“SIREN,” tweeted former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jesse Ferguson, urging people to contribute to Kelly.
High as the stakes may be for Democrats, they have plenty of reason to feel hopeful.
(Democratic State Senator and gubernatorial nominee Laura Kelly/Facebook)
Kobach has consistently high disapproval ratings among Kansas voters familiar with his record. Trump’s trade war has hit the state’s agricultural sector hard. Kansas also has a record of electing both Republican and moderate Democratic governors, as Kelly’s spokesperson reminded TPM in an email.
Local political experts describe Kelly as a well-liked, experienced politician who has repeatedly won tough races in her conservative-leaning district. A left-of-center moderate, Kelly can easily frame Kobach, who has campaigned with a fake machine gun mounted to a jeep, as an extremist.
Kobach has praised the huge tax cuts enacted by deeply unpopular former Gov. Sam Brownback, who eviscerated the state’s education budget to pay for them. In her first statement after Kobach officially became the nominee, Kelly described him as “Brownback on steroids.”
Change is a winning message for Democrats in Kansas, where people are “feeling the specific pain” of Brownback’s legacy, Democratic Governor’s Association communications director Jason Leopold told TPM. Leopold called Kansas “a significant target and major opportunity” for Democrats in 2018.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, which changed the race prediction to a “toss-up” thanks to Kobach’s nomination, said that the broader picture of a possible blue wave year was important. Not only is Kobach “a really, really flawed candidate,” Duffy said in a phone interview, but “it’s a tough year to be a Republican.”
The deciding factor may well turn out to be the ballots cast by independent voters, local political scientists told TPM. Orman will be a drag on Kelly, not Kobach, they predicted, pointing to the independent candidate’s liberal stances on everything from abortion to gay rights.
“A Colyer voter is not going to be attracted to Orman,” Patrick Miller of the University of Kansas said, chiding national political observers who suggested otherwise. “Kobach and Colyer don’t disagree on many if any issues. They differ on style.”
Miller said that “independents usually end up getting fewer votes than polling indicates.” But as we saw with the GOP primary, which came down to a margin of several hundred ballots, just a few percentage points can change everything.