For the first time, the Republican Party platform passed at the 2016 convention in Cleveland explicitly endorses legislation requiring voters to show identification before they are allowed to cast a ballot, as well as a wall that runs the entire length of the U.S. border with Mexico.
Those two elements, part of a document party regulars describe as the most conservative platform in GOP history, were crafted by a rapidly rising star in conservative circles, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
The border wall was a key element of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s winning primary campaign. Kobach was one of the earliest backers of the New York billionaire.
Kobach is a hero among those on the far right and a villain to many on the left — and he is poised to take a major step that could vault him to the top ranks of the Republican Party, in his home state and nationally.
Kobach, 50, is considering a bid for governor in 2018, when Gov. Sam Brownback (R) will face a two-term limit. While he is likely to face intra-party competition, Kobach has been steadily raising his profile around the country, appearing regularly on cable news networks to discuss voting rights and immigration.
This week in Cleveland, Kobach met with delegations from Kentucky and Minnesota — an unusual step for a Secretary of State, normally a low-profile position concerned more with administering state services than hot-button issues that drive partisan passions. Kobach castigated the Obama administration’s handling of immigration and deportations before both delegations.
“It’s going to take some really major changes to basically restart our enforcement. Essentially, immigration enforcement has come to a halt,” Kobach told The Hill while waiting to make an appearance on CNN.
Back home, Kobach’s star has risen as Brownback’s has faded. The governor has been beset by criticism after tax cuts blasted a deep hole in the state budget; he recently signed a budget that cut $97 million to state agencies, cuts that hit education and Medicaid programs hardest. Surveys both public and private show that fewer than three-in-ten Kansans hold a favorable opinion of Brownback.
Kobach, on the other hand, has emerged as a sought-after surrogate among Kansas Republicans.
In 2014, he stumped for Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who faced a conservative challenger in a tough primary, and he delivered a critical endorsement to Sen. Jerry Moran (R) ahead of a 2010 primary in which Moran edged a fellow member of Congress by just five percentage points.
Kansas Republican operatives say Kobach has made a habit of ubiquity; if a county Republican Party holds a fundraising dinner with even a dozen supporters, one operative said, Kobach is likely to show up.
Nationally, Kobach has a stable of prominent supporters. He works with the Immigration Law Reform Institute, an affiliate of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a platform he has used to defend strict immigration laws in states like Arizona and Alabama.
“He is a principled conservative who from the very first was trying to push the powers that be in Washington to adhere to constitutional principles, especially the limitations on the federal government, and to enforce the rule of law, particularly in the immigration area,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former member of the Federal Election Commission who worked with Kobach at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.
But as much as Kobach’s work has won him praise from conservatives, he has outraged liberals and voting rights advocates who say he is disenfranchising thousands of voters.
After winning election as Secretary of State in 2010, Kobach introduced a measure in the state legislature to require voters to show proof they are U.S. citizens in order to register to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked part of the measure in 2013, when it ruled no such requirement could be enforced for federal elections.
The following year, Kobach and Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett introduced measures that would allow voters to vote in federal, but not state, elections if they didn’t show proof of citizenship. That law would prevent more than 35,000 registered Kansas voters from casting ballots in state elections.
Voting rights groups led by the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law, in both state and federal courts. Kobach has lost several rounds in court, though he has ordered state election officials to discount state and local votes from about 17,000 voters who have yet to show proof of citizenship.
“The basic rights of voters are being abridged by the champion of a shameful campaign that is being whipped up in Republican-controlled statehouses,” the New York Times editorial page raged about Kobach this week. “Mr. Kobach’s performance as Kansas’ secretary of state clearly is a blight on true democracy.”
Kobach dismisses the complaints: “If the New York Times editorial page says something bad about me, I’m probably doing something good,” he said with a chuckle.
And while the battle over voter identification laws has reached a temporary plateau — Republican-controlled state legislatures have already acted on those laws, while Democratic-controlled legislatures have blocked them — proof of citizenship is likely to emerge as the next national fight over voting rights and election security. Along with Kansas and Arizona, Alabama and Georgia already have similar laws on the books; other states are likely to try to follow suit next year.
Kobach will not be Kansas’s Secretary of State for long: He is almost certain to run for governor in 2018, state Republicans say. “He has made no ifs, ands or buts, he’s running for something. And it’s not going to be Secretary of State again,” said one prominent Republican official who asked for anonymity to preserve relations.
But he is unlikely to have a clear shot at the Republican nomination. Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Mike Pompeo are both likely to consider gubernatorial bids in 2018. Tellingly, Pompeo changed the name of his campaign committee in May, from Pompeo for Congress to Pompeo for Kansas.
Kobach is unready to formally declare he’s running for anything yet. “I haven’t made a decision yet, and I hope to make a decision in the end of this year,” he said.
But he did rule out one race: Some Kansas Republicans speculated he might try to succeed Jenkins in Congress, a job in which Kobach says he has no interest. In 2004, he ran against Rep. Dennis Moore, then a Kansas Democratic member of Congress, a race he lost by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin.
“I consider myself fortunate I lost that race, because in retrospect I’ve been able to accomplish a lot more,” Kobach said.