Tolerance for Kansass former secretary of state is waning, with Republican politicians saying the party has become too rightwing
It was only nine months ago that Kansas Democrats were bidding good riddance to Kris Kobach as Donald Trumps closest political ally in the conservative midwestern state went down in flames.
But now Kobach, who briefly spearheaded Trumps commission on the illusion of voter fraud after using his stint as Kansas secretary of state to target immigrants and then losing a disastrous campaign that cost Republicans the governors office is back and running for the US Senate.
But Democrats are not displeased. An alarmed GOP in the state is wondering how to stop him amid signs that public tolerance for one of Trumps most vocal cheerleaders is nearing an end. If he runs, he could end up gifting a precious Senate seat to the Democrats, possibly tipping the balance of power.
Hes the worst possible Republican nominee and no one knows it better than the national Democrats, said David Kensinger, chief of staff to Governor Sam Brownback, who left office in January, and organiser of a series of Republican wins.
Kobach is fighting for a Senate seat held by the Republicans for more than a century. But these are strange times in a state still grappling with the damage caused by the Kansas experiment of deep Tea Party-led tax cuts.
The GOP paid the price in Novembers election and gave Democrats a glimpse of how to take it on in the midwest. With a tweeted endorsement from Trump, Kobach narrowly unseated the sitting governor in the Republican primary but then lost in the general election amid distaste among moderate voters for some of his positions, including calls for a Muslim registry.
The GOP was also hit by changing urban demographics. A Native American lesbian, Sharice Davids, took a seat in Congress from a Trumpian conservative in a district that includes part of Kansas City. Another Democrat came within a whisker of winning a once-solid neighboring Republican district.
Since then, three GOP members of the state legislature have defected to the Democrats, saying their former party has become too rightwing even for Kansas.
For a state politician, Kobach made a national impression with his stridently anti-immigrant views and installed some of the toughest voter ID laws in the nation.
Kobach also has a habit of botching things, including a humiliating federal court defeat over a Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship to vote which involved a judge ordering Kobach to take a course in legal procedure for repeatedly failing to follow the rules of evidence.
His election fraud commission folded after nine months because states refused to cooperate. Kobach also had a hand in Trumps failed attempt to get a citizenship question on to the 2020 census.
Earlier this year, Kobachs name was high on Trumps list as a potential immigration czar to drive deportations. But he overreached by demanding a West Wing office and the promise of future promotion to homeland security secretary.
If youre a Democrat in Kansas right now, you have to hope that Kris Kobach gets the nomination, said Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. Theres no question that the mainline Republicans, fairly conservative but not crazy Republicans, theyre scared to death of having Kobach as their nominee because they think hes the most likely way they could lose a seat that has been in Republican hands for over 100 years.
The Kansas Republican party is torn between a hardline leadership and a more moderate body of state legislators elected in 2016 in response to what one legislator called the crazy train of ideologically driven tax policy.
Nine years ago, newly elected governor Brownback promised a wave of deep cuts to income and business taxes would deliver a shot of adrenaline to the Kansas economy and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Tax revenues fell $700m in the first year alone, more than 10% of Kansass budget. The economy slowed and the state government was forced to slash public funding of schools, infrastructure and health services. The new jobs never materialized.
The Republicans dipped into financial reserves and road funds to make up the shortfall but it was far from enough. The cuts to schooling were so deep that the Kansas supreme court ruled the state was failing in its legal duty to educate.
The great experiment was killed off in 2017 when newly elected moderate Republicans sided with Democrats in the state legislature to increase income taxes and bring in an additional $1.2bn in revenue.
Dinah Sykes was a Republican senator in the state legislature through it all.
There are those who truly believe in the tax cuts and they believe we just didnt cut enough. But we did nine rounds of budget cuts between 2012 and 2016 and we are still not able to pay for this. Everything around us was really crumbling, she said.
Sykes said that even as the states voters turned against the cuts, the Kansas Republican leadership remained wedded under pressure from corporate money.
They look at whos donating to their campaign and what policy the Koch brothers want passed, she said. The senate president pulled me aside and said, if you vote to reverse the Brownback tax policy there will be hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to defeat you in your next election.
Sykes walked away from the Republican party earlier this year along with two other legislators.
But the defections are also a reminder of how the state Republican party, sometimes with the help of Trump, has moved beyond the conservatism many in Kansas identify with.
The Republican party has shifted further and further right, said Barbara Bollier, a state senator who also left the party for the Democrats. In Kansas, there are still people trying to hang on to the notion of a moderate Republican which was what I have been my whole life until now.
But the president remains a near certainty to win Kansas in 2020 even if he is not a great asset to other Republicans running for office. In a state that leans heavily toward the GOP, Trumps approval rating hovers a little over 50%.
Kobachs path to the nomination is not an easy one, but he could slip through the primary as he has done in the past on the back of a split vote and narrow victory delivered by hardline Republicans.
Kensinger thinks the Democrats have a shot at winning if Kobach wins the Republican primary.
People who have voted for Kris Kobach in the past should realize that hes got a reverse Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to crap, he said.
Some Democrats are careful about what they wish for.
It would make it a race for the Democrats, said Sykes. But the possibility of Kobach making it through, that he actually might win, makes you wonder if its a good option.