Kansas is holding one of several very close gubernatorial races in the run-up to the midterms, and it’s of particular interest nationally because the Republican candidate is the Trumpian nightmare Kris Kobach, a nativist and vote-suppression pioneer. After barely edging incumbent governor Jeff Colyer in an August primary, the Kansas secretary of State is now locked in a tight three-way race with Democrat Laura Kelly and independent spoiler Greg Orman.
While Kobach is known nationally almost exclusively for his views on immigration and on voting rights, in Kansas he is also controversial for his pledge to bring back the virulent anti-tax, anti-spending policies of former governor Sam Brownback, who left office earlier this year to take a diplomatic position in the Trump administration. Brownback’s “experiment” with supply-side economics was panned as a failure outside of hard-core conservative circles, leading as it did to chronic budget shortfalls and big cuts in education funding. And by the time he finally left Topeka, he was regularly among the least popular governors in the country (his final Morning Consult approval ratio was a terrible 24/66).
So this was a big and potentially significant moment at the very beginning of Tuesday’s final candidates’ debate among Kobach, Kelly, and Orman.
Kobach’s hesitant and lonely vote of confidence in the former governor reinforced efforts by both of his rivals to cast him as a Brownback throwback. The New York Times called it a “gift to Kansas Democrats.”
Presumably, Kobach thought he had little choice in a three-way race but to stand as the candidate of his party’s long-dominant right wing; many moderate Republicans in the legislature and among former statewide elected officials have long since abandoned him. But it will be a reminder to wavering voters that he won’t just go after immigrants and minority voters as governor; he will represent a threat to public schools and other key services. And it will help energize Democrats, not only in the governor’s race but in two competitive U.S. House races in Kansas.