Wednesday, August 08, 2018

What's the Matter with Kris Kobach?

[I put some thoughts about last night's Kansas primary election results up on Facebook this morning, and Chris Suellentrop, an editor at Politico, asked if I'd like to expand on one of my arguments for the magazine. The result--edited, polished, and punched-up--is here. Below is the original, slightly longer, and hopefully a little more nuanced version. Enjoy.]

As I write this, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach leads Governor Jeff Colyer by fewer than 200 votes in our state's Republican primary. Neither has conceded, and even the least contentious possible outcome will inevitably involve further delays, possible recounts, and bad feelings. A divisive Republican primary is obviously hardly bad news for local Democrats--but I'm confident that a win by Colyer, rather than Kobach, would have been the best news of all.

Nationally, this may strike some as surprising. Wouldn't the Democratic candidate (long-time state senator Laura Kelly, an old and close friend of former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius and a politician well-connected to the state's Democratic power base in the northeast corner of the state) naturally prefer to run against a polarizing and unpopular figure like Kobach? After all, this is a man who has barnstormed across the country, selling barely-hidden nativism and immigrant-bashing, involving himself in failed lawsuits and political crusades that have left cities with legal bills in the millions and personal contempt charges which he's been able to foist upon Kansas taxpayers to pay in his behalf. He embraced President Trump's completely groundless claims about "millions" of undocumented residents voting in American elections, was appointed by Trump himself to lead an panel determined to expose this scandal, which of course ignominiously disbanded when no evidence could be found, and accusations about the false information Kobach's peddled through that panel are plentiful. (Kobach's own personal crusade to find illegal voting has resulted, in nearly eight years in office, all of nine convictions.) On top of all this, he simply hasn't done a very good job as Secretary of State; despite all his Fox News-broadcast concern about stamping out voter irregularities, technological glitches and confused instructions--many of them  related to Kobach's own legally blocked crusade to change citizenship requirements for voting and create new rules for purging the voter rolls in the state of Kansas--continue to be endemic. So what Democrat wouldn't want to run against a target like that, especially in a conservative state like Kansas where Democrats need to divide the opposition and recruit moderate Republicans to their cause?

The problem with this analysis isn't that it's wrong; it's that it's incomplete. A deeper appreciation of the current context in Kansas, of the history of the state Democratic and Republican parties, and of the unique challenges which Kobach may bring to this race is necessary.

First, it's not enough to say that Kansas is a conservative state. It is, of course, for a host of demographic and cultural reasons. But it is also a profoundly Republican state, with the close association between that political party and the attitudes and perspectives of the majority of the states (white) citizens extending back practically to the moment of state's entrance to the union on the brink of the Civil War. The Republican lock on state politics and its federal representatives isn't absolute--but it's pretty close. (Kansas hasn't elected a non-Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1939, and the last time Republicans lost control of the state senate was 1917.) Kansas was more riled by the Populist insurgency of the 1890s and early 1900s than any other state, but unlike elsewhere in America, the Democrats were not able to build on that insurgency, and Republican dominance returned in force.

The result of this long-time party dominance has meant, of course, that factions within that dominant party became more entrenched and, sometimes, combative. By the 1950s and 1960s, it was simply an accepted fact in Kansas politics that policy would always be determined by the relative, shifting, factional strength of three groups: conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, and--always in third place--the Democrats. Over the last four decades of the 20th century though, that triangulation enabled Kansas's political class to maintain fairly stable, and relatively sustainable, fiscal policies, not to mention generally only moderately conservative cultural policies, with Democrats occupying the governor's mansion for 28 of the past 60 years, with Sebelius (and her Lt. Governor, Mark Parkinson, who took her place for the final two years of her terms when she left to become President Obama's director of Department of Health and Human Services in 2008) being the most recent. It is Sebelius herself (who had built up an very effective--if unfortunately very personal and region-specific--network of Democratic fundraisers and activists within Kansas through the 1980s and 1990s) who is frequently credited with a common adage in Kansas politics: "Democrats don't win in Kansas; Republicans lose." That is, when the Republican party can't unify its factions, or when they are burdened with a candidate that various intra-party factions dislike, Democrats have a window of opportunity.

This is what Democrats--and really, everyone on the left in Kansas--have been anticipating ever since the 2016 election. While nationwide the election of Trump left millions of liberals, progressives, socialists, and just plain ordinary Democrats feeling shellacked, here in Kansas those of us on the left could console ourselves with results that showed the "Brownback Revolution" finally coming apart. As is well known to anyone who ever Googled "Kansas" or "Brownback" or "tax experiment" anytime in the past six years, Sam Brownback, elected governor in 2010, brought with him into the legislature a core group of passionate, deluded believers in the old supply-side economic gospel; in 2012 he orchestrated successful primary challenges against multiple moderate Republicans, which when all was said and done effectively put one conservative faction entirely in charge of the state Republican party. The result was a "march to zero" plan to turn Kansas into a no-income-tax state, a plan that flew in the face of fiscal reality and had devastating consequences for Kansas's education funding, roads, and social services, to say nothing of the state's credit rating and overall socio-economic health. The dispiriting nadir for Kansas Democrats was Brownback's re-election in 2014; since then, through the 2016 primaries and elections where Republican moderates and Democrats finally started to push back, through Brownback's departure for a diplomatic post in January 2018 with a miserable approval rating, we have been watching the window for Democrats to make a showing in the state capital of Topeka only widen.

Jeff Coyler, the current governor, has barely had six months to build up any kind of momentum, and as Brownback's Lt. Governor, he has a near-impossible tightrope to walk. He has been obliged, by fiscal reality, legislative action, and state supreme court decisions, to acquiesce to dialing back Brownback's irresponsible vision and moving back towards more sustainable approaches to taxation and school funding, meaning he found himself occupying a "moderate" position in the state Republican constellation. Yet he couldn't easily own that position, rejecting Brownback's legacy and casting himself on the side of those who always fought against Brownback and his majority...because, of course, he was central to that very movement. Which means that the script which a Democratic opponent to Coyler would follow writes itself: emphasize his central position in what is widely regarded throughout Kansas--even by many members of his own party--as a failed Republican administration, watch him contort in his efforts to distinguish himself from his disliked predecessor while not alienating the true-believing base which forms the conservative faction in the party, and reap the benefits.

I've no doubt that Laura Kelly will follow essentially the same playbook in running against Kris Kobach, should he come the nominee. But I fear it won't work as well, simply because Kobach will carry so much national baggage into the campaign along with him that, even without making any claims in association with it--which would be completely out of character for Kobach; his ideological ambitions and national aspirations are plain to anyone who has followed his career at all--Kelly would find any laser-like focus on campaigning against the Brownback legacy complicated. This is not to deny that she couldn't find good, electorally salient arguments against all that baggage; frankly, anyone who doesn't accept the idea that state election offices all across the country must all be lying about or hopelessly confused about the supposedly massive problem of voter fraud in America (an idea whose level of acceptance outside of the White House is, to be generous, extremely small) could come up with good lines of attack against Kobach. But will such salient arguments actually be politically effective, in a state where being Republican is such a deeply engrained default for so many? I wonder. To point to an unpopular Republican governor, tie his former lieutenant governor to him, and say "Republicans need to get their house to order; time to send a Democrat in to fix things," is a message that has actually worked in Kansas's past. To do the same in the midst of Fox News-amplified noise about citizenship, immigration, race relations, and President Trump's tweets (and visits--if Kobach is the nominee, I suspect the question won't be whether Trump will come to campaign for his protégé, but whether he will come twice) will be most difficult, with less of a precedent to fall back on.

In the midst of all this, we also have Greg Orman--a wealthy, smart, relatively young and attractive, socially liberal, business friendly independent from the Kansas City area running for governor. With a socially conservative state politician as his running mate, one can't help but suspect that Orman has designed his campaign in anticipation of Kobach winning the nomination: he has checked all the boxes that would be necessary for him to be appealing to moderate Republicans who can't stand Kobach as their party leader and are frightened of the prospect of him becoming governor. With a less polarizing figure leading the Republican race, the appeal of Orman's proclaimed independence would be lessened somewhat; since part of his whole argument for himself is to be outside the familiar battles between conservatives, moderates, and Democrats from Kansas history, a race that was essentially a referendum of Sam Brownback, a referendum that could borrow from patterns familiar with Kansas voters--an unbalanced Republican party in need of correction!--might arguably give his pox-on-both-houses rhetoric less purchase. But with Kobach as the nominee, Orman will definitely be in the hunt--and the likely effects a serious independent candidacy will have on the Democrats in this Republican state are easy to guess.

None of this is to say that Kelly (and her running mate, Lynn Rogers) wouldn't have a chance against both Kobach and Orman, if that's what the final ballot ends up looking like. After all, the Brownback stink can easily be associated with Kobach as well (perhaps even better than with Colyer; unlike the current governor, who has been obliged to deal with the real world for at least a few months, Kobach aggressively embraces the Brownback tax legacy, promising to double-down on it). The key will be to keep the race as Kansas-specific as possible. But with the national attention and money which follows Kobach everywhere he goes, preventing him from transforming the race into a referendum on Trump and the future of America's civilization, as opposed to on a particular Republican governor's legacy, will be difficult. Every one of us the left here in Kansas should be hoping, I think, for absentee ballots or some other unanticipated event to swing the Republican nomination back in Colyer's direction. Either way, though, our work is cut out for us. (But of course, that's nothing new.)

No comments: