Kansas Republicans split over secretary of state race

Editor's note: NCR readers interested in immigration reform and voting rights will no doubt find this article about the race for the secretary of state in Kansas well worth the read. The incumbent secretary of state, Republican Kris Kobach, faces stiff competition from Democrat challenger Jean Schodorf, in part because Kobach has made a national name for himself as a consultant to state legislatures that have tightened anti-immigration laws, like Alabama and Arizona, and multiple other states that have recently enacted legislation that demands proof of citizenship before a person can vote. NCR brings this story to you with the cooperation of NPR affiliate KCUR in Kansas City, Mo. 

Americans saw how important a state elections officer can be in 2000, when Florida Secretary of State Kathryn Harris certified the presidential election for George Bush.

Recently, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach intervened in a contentious race that could alter the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Kobach is known nationwide as a conservative Republican in a deeply red state. But this year, he is struggling to win re-election.

To see him meeting with half a dozen supporters in a bar just off Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, you might not think Kris Kobach had come all that far from his childhood in Topeka, where his dad owned a Buick dealership.

But this smiling, enthusiastic guy holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, and he's a stalwart of the anti-immigration movement nationwide.

"I have been involved in restoring the rule of law in immigration," Kobach said. "That means trying to stop the lawlessness in the Obama administration, and that also means defending states like Arizona."

Arizona enacted the strictest immigration law in the country four years ago. It compelled police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they thought may be in the country illegally. Kobach not only wrote the statue, he defended it before the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Kobach wrote similar legislation for Alabama. He's intervened to support strict immigration laws from California to Pennsylvania, all, he says, in his spare time.

"And that's a common thread with my duties as Secretary of State," Kobach said. "Because there, too, we want to see legal, fair elections where there's no voter fraud."

Under Kobach, Kansas became the first state to require proof of citizenship for everyone registering to vote. Kobach says it is working.

"Since the proof of citizenship portion went into effect on January 1, 2013, roughly the last two years, we have seen a number of aliens attempt to register, but then get stopped," Kobach said.

Kobach figures the filter has stopped about 10 nonresidents. But it's meantime blocked more than 18,000 other Kansans from registering to vote, stalling almost one in five who have tried to register under the law.

Kobach says these are mainly people who just don't care that much about voting, just going through the process when they get their driver's license. He says showing a passport or birth certificate isn't much to ask to protect the sanctity of elections.

Mark Buhler disagrees.

"I appreciate his interest, but I don't think he's protecting me from anything," Buhler said. "He tries to find problems that aren't there, and people that do that drive me crazy. This world's hard enough."

Buhler's a former state senator. He looks at ease in his suit, standing by a pool in a suburban-style subdivision in Lawrence. But this is actually kind of a weird place for him to be -- a Democratic fundraiser.

"I am a Republican, and I believe in basic Republican values," Buhler said. "So this is a hard thing for me to do by nature."

A middle-aged woman politely asks partygoers for their attention. It's Jean Schodorf -- Kobach's opponent.

Two years ago, Schodorf was a Republican state senator, a moderate, targeted by the conservative wing of the party and defeated in her primary.

"It's time to stand up for Kansas," Schodorf said. "To work to restore the Kansas we love. Because it's been lost. Something has happened."

What happened, according to Schodorf, is that conservative ideologues took over. She promises to be apolitical, boring even, compared to the incumbent.  

"I will be a full-time secretary of state, full time, for the people of Kansas and not Arizona," Schodorf said to applause. 

The message may be working. 

Schodorf is polling about even with Kobach, which is amazing considering Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one in Kansas. Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, says Kansas moderate republicans -- some of them, anyway -- are in revolt. 

"In the state of Kansas a Democrat can't win, just by depending on Democrats and unaffiliated. He or she has to have those moderate Republicans," Beatty said.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, both conservative Republicans, are currently trailing relatively little-known challengers. The underdogs are winning in part because prominent moderate Republicans have peeled off to fight conservatives in their own party. 

"It is a democracy, and eventually people will say, 'Nope, that's just too far,' and I think we are starting to see the pendulum swing back," says Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a moderate.

Kobach said the pendulum isn't going anywhere. He says Republicans who would vote against him never were really Republicans in the first place. He says he's pretty sure he'll win come November.

The down ballot race for secretary of state isn't attracting a lot of outside money, but it is getting of national interest. Kansas has only had two Democratic secretaries of state in 153 years.

So if Schodorf manages to upset Kobach, it would be one for the record books, and something of a body blow to the conservative wing of Republican Party.

[Frank Morris is national correspondent and senior editor for KCUR, the NPR affiliate in the Kansas City, Mo., area.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here