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Kansas secretary of state a Tea Party lightning rod

From illegal immigration to wild swine, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s keen sense for a fight has vaulted him from the grasslands to the national stage.

Kobach is a “BloodBrother & on the frontlines taking on the America hating ObamaGang at every turn,” rock singer Ted Nugent wrote on Facebook this year, after Kobach, a 48-year-old Republican, lobbied the Texas legislature for the right to shoot feral hogs from helicopters.

Now the Yale-educated lawyer, who helped draft laws designed to rid Arizona and Alabama of undocumented immigrants and challenged the Obama administration’s deferral of deportations, is facing the same opposition as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

Moderate Republicans are in revolt over the financial fallout from tax cuts, and Kobach, to some members of his own party, has come to symbolize partisan overreach.

Last week, Kobach lost a bid to keep a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate on the November ballot, potentially complicating the race for the Republican incumbent.

“He’s left a trail of destruction across the whole country from his endeavors,” said Stephen Morris, a farmer who is a former Republican Senate president. “And he’s pushed some very strict voting laws and insisted we have a voting-fraud problem, which is not true.”

Kobach, a Tea Party supporter, trailed his Democratic opponent in an early September poll. Although Kansas is reliably Republican, it has a history of moderation and the Brownback and Kobach races have implications beyond state borders.

Ballot fracas

“Nationally, the Tea Party is no longer in the ascendancy, and if either one of these guys gets beat in Kansas it’s going to be even more damaging to Tea Party insurgents and the more ultra-conservatives in the Republican Party,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

The most recent controversy came to a head Sept. 18 when the Kansas Supreme Court overturned Kobach’s refusal of candidate Chad Taylor’s request to remove his name from the November ballot. The ruling could benefit independent Greg Orman in his race against Republican Pat Roberts and, in turn, affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Kobach’s Sept. 3 decision had preserved a three-way contest, to the potential benefit of Roberts. Kobach is an honorary campaign committee member of the Republican senator’s re-election even as he serves as the state’s chief elections official.

Meaningless title

Kobach downplayed the significance of his campaign role, saying in an interview that he was one of a “cast of thousands” holding that position and that if he’d known ahead of time there would be a controversy he wouldn’t have accepted the position.

He dismissed critics, calling Morris “one of the most liberal members to serve in the Kansas Senate” and “not a Republican.”

The last Democrat sent to the U.S. Senate by Kansas voters was George McGill, who served from 1930 to 1939; the last nod to a Democratic presidential candidate was 50 years ago, when voters chose Lyndon Johnson.

In July, more than 100 Republicans endorsed Democrat Paul Davis over Brownback, who pushed for the tax cuts that led to state credit-rating downgrades.

Ivy League

As polls show the governor’s race a toss-up, a KSN News/Survey USA survey released Sept. 8 showed Kobach with 43 percent and his Democratic challenger, Jean Schodorf, a former Republican state senator, with 46 percent. The poll of 825 adults was conducted from Sept. 4 to Sept. 7 and has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

“He’s been getting criticism for using his office for partisan gain,” said Neal Allen, an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University. “And he gets a good bit of criticism for not focusing on his secretary of state duties.”

The son of a Buick dealer in Topeka, Kobach earned degrees from elite universities — Harvard, Oxford and Yale. He joined the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001, overseeing immigration enforcement after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That eventually led to his drafting immigration restrictions for Arizona.

Papers, please

It was the strictest such statute in the country in 2010, requiring immigrants to have registration documents in their possession at all times. It also made state law enforcement officers determine an individual’s immigration status during routine stops or arrests.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that Arizona couldn’t undercut federal law, striking down three provisions, although leaving in place the requirement that police check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.

After a failed congressional bid in 2004 Kobach became chairman of the Kansas Republican Party in 2007. He was elected secretary of state in 2010, the same year as Brownback, and successfully pushed a law the next year requiring proof of citizenship to vote. The law is being challenged in federal court.

“The feeling among Kansans now is that they’re tired of the ultra-conservative brand of politics in the state,” said Nathaniel Birkhead, an assistant professor of political science at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “This is really voters saying we asked for it, we got it and we don’t like it.”

While Kansas has a history of political turmoil reaching back to bloody battles over slavery in the mid-19th century, its modern-day Republicanism is defined by former U.S. Senators Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum — conservative with a small c.

“Until right now it’s been a sane Republican state,” said John Carlin, a Democrat who served as governor from 1979 to 1987.

“I must admit that Democrats historically have won when Republicans screwed up,” Carlin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

Kobach said only the people can judge his record.

“Some on the radical left don’t like those changes,” he said. “We’ll see what the voters think in a month and a half.”

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