Donald Trump’s string of successful interventions in Republican primaries looked to be in good shape well into the evening on August 7, with his endorsed candidates in Michigan for governor (Bill Schuette) and senator (John James) both winning their primaries handily. Sure, both these gents are underdogs heading toward November. For the moment, though, Trump’s domination of his party looked safe.
But as the wee hours approached, Trump’s most prominent protégé, Kansas secretary of State Kris Kobach, was locked in a tight race with incumbent Governor Jeff Colyer that looked likely to go south. For hours, a virtually dead-even contest awaited returns from the state’s largest jurisdiction, suburban Johnson County, where Colyer had handily beaten Kobach in early voting. Many observers went to bed figuring Kobach’s goose was cooked.
But when the votes finally did roll in (a major glitch in a new computer system was blamed for the delays) on Wednesday morning, Kobach held onto a tiny but real 191 vote lead. It is clear in retrospect that Trump’s late formal endorsement of Kobach boosted his election-day vote in Johnson County (and elsewhere) just enough to nudge him over the line — for now, at least.
Kobach’s significance in Trumpland goes far beyond representing another notch on POTUS’s gun. For nativists and vote-suppressors, Kobach was truly “Trump before Trump,” a celebrity and a role model, dating back to his co-authorship in 2010 of Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, the “show your papers” bill, enshrining Latino profiling in that state’s law-enforcement policies. Kobach has since been a warrior against the phantom menace of voter fraud, helping his own and other states enact constitutionally dubious voter-ID laws and serving as vice-chair of (and all but running) Trump’s hapless and ultimately abandoned Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity.
So Kobach isn’t one of those Republicans who opportunistically became a Trump acolyte post-2016; his career stands at the dark, beating heart of Trumpism in its scarier dimensions.
And now it hangs by a thread in a late vote-counting process supervised by his own department.
While all 3,539 Kansas precincts have reported, provisional ballots remain to be counted. And perhaps more significantly, Kansas allows absentee ballots postmarked by election day to count if they are received by Friday. There’s no telling how either category of votes will fall. The state does not have an automatic recount law, but either candidate could request a recount if his campaign is willing to pay for it.
If, as appears almost certain, the primary goes into multiple overtime periods, it’s worth keeping in mind that Kobach and his followers probably won’t be slow to allege voter fraud against his opponents, particularly after a federal judge earlier this year struck down his signature voter-ID law requiring proof of citizenship. Kobach recently told New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti that he anticipated exactly such a development:
If Kansas’s gubernatorial race ends up being decided by fewer than 10,000 votes, he warned me, he’s concerned the result may be affected by noncitizens voting illegally.
He was probably talking about a general election, but since some liberal groups (notably the ACLU, or as Kobach’s campaign calls it, the “George Soros–funded ACLU”) spent time and resources in Kansas urging Republican primary voters to reject Kobach, it’s not at all hard to imagine him alleging a conspiracy to sneak some dusky interlopers into the lily-white precincts of a Sunflower State GOP primary.
Much as Kobach would like to make this contest a Republican referendum on Trump in a party whose heart now belongs to Daddy, there were other reasons he didn’t win in a walk and might still lose. Colyer, who as lieutenant governor ascended to the big chair in January when then-Governor Sam Brownback left Kansas to take a diplomatic post in the Trump administration, was endorsed by the NRA and Kansas legend Bob Dole, and in the past has been close to the Koch donor network, which is based in Kansas.
While a solid conservative, Colyer is very much the candidate of Republicans who have worked with Democrats to repeal (overriding Brownback vetoes) some of the tax cuts that made Kansas a conservative policy experiment gone badly wrong, making Brownback locally unpopular and nationally notorious. Kobach, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that he would return to Brownback’s fiscal policies, as the Kansas City Star’s Steve Rose noted:
Because Kobach’s priority has been fear-mongering, it was not entirely clear until his announcement for governor that he also stands for the same fiscal agenda as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Kobach has now pledged to follow Brownback’s lead, seeking a reversal of recent tax increases, cutting taxes and slashing services.
So there’s more at stake locally in this primary than whether Kansas goes all-in on making life difficult for unauthorized immigrants.
No one is going to say it out loud, but Kansas Democrats are probably praying that Kobach pulls out the nomination and fatally taints the state’s GOP with his unsavory odor. State legislator Laura Kelly easily defeated two credible opponents (including a former mayor of Wichita) to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. She is very much in the mold of former governor Kathleen Sebelius (an early supporter): a sober centrist with some natural appeal to moderate Republicans, a breed not entirely extinct in Kansas. She would definitely have a chance against Kobach in a race where even a small pro-Democratic and anti-Trump national wave would augment the resistance to this highly controversial man.
But first the GOP nomination has to be resolved, and between Trump and Kobach himself, it’s hard to imagine the final tally and potential recount going quietly.