OVERLAND PARK — The footprint of Team Trump on the political fortunes of Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kris Kobach deepened Tuesday night at a high-roller fundraiser featuring the closest approximation to President Donald Trump that exists — Donald Trump Jr.
Trump’s eldest son performed his duty by generating cash and attention for Kobach’s quest for the keys to Cedar Crest, while Kobach publicly reaffirmed allegiance to the current occupant of the White House.
The political event in vote-rich Johnson County likely won’t be the last First Family appearance on Kobach’s behalf. Kobach’s ardent surrogacy for candidate Trump, his dogged service this year on the president’s election integrity commission and his backing of questionable claims that fraud by millions of illegal immigrants threw the 2016 popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton is the type of loyalty the Trumps savor.
It’s cringe-worthy to polite Kansas Republicans that Don Jr. campaigned for Kobach rather than Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, the political partner since 2010 of Gov. Sam Brownback. Colyer expects to seek the 2018 Republican nomination for governor as the incumbent, given Brownback’s decision to accept a job in the Trump administration. How did Brownback land in the Trump circle of trust, but not Colyer?
The $200-a-plate chicken dinner for more than 400 people after a pricey closed door VIP reception left no doubt Kobach is wagering his future on the premise a federal criminal investigation of Trump insiders won’t erode support for the president in Kansas to an extent it destroys the secretary of state’s ability to be elected governor.
Positioning himself as The Trump of Kansas could carry rich rewards for Kobach, especially in a state Trump won by 244,000 votes.
Merger of the Kobach and Trump brands sets in motion a compelling test of their popularity in a Midwest state dominated by Republicans, said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University.
“Kobach has really gone too far down the Trump road to turn back,” Beatty said. “If he turned on Trump, he’d look very craven.”
Wichita pundit Ed Flentje, who is no fan of Kobach, said the secretary of state’s cozy relationship with the Trumps could backfire if the president’s legal difficulties mounted. The Kobach event didn’t allow for detailed examination of Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. Junior initially portrayed the gathering as a chance to focus on adoption of Russian children, but more recently confirmed he was searching for damaging information on Clinton.
A toxic criminal halo around Trump and his allies could cost Kobach a chance to draw votes from the GOP’s moderate middle, Flentje said. Even Kansas Republicans who have never voted for a Democrat or independent candidate for governor in their life might do so in 2018, he said.
Republican and Democratic candidates for governor used the gala to renew objections to a Kobach candidacy.
Former Sen. Jim Barnett, who is among Kobach’s GOP rivals in the 2018 race and was the Republican nominee for governor in 2006, said President Trump campaigned on a pledge to create U.S. jobs and to “drain the swamp” of political hacks in Washington, D.C. Kobach said at the outset of his campaign for governor that he would similarly rid Topeka of a culture of corruption and ignite the state’s economy.
“Kris Kobach won’t be draining any swamps as governor,” Barnett said. “Kobach wants to return to the Brownback tax levels that bankrupted the state and drove jobs away.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita attorney seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said there was no reason to criticize Kobach for tapping a New York City millionaire to help finance his campaign.
He said it would “take an awful lot of Wall Street money to sell Kansas on four more years of Brownback.”
GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed O’Malley, a former state legislator who started an entrepreneurial leadership foundation in Wichita, said Trump’s faith in Kobach belied the real estate mogul’s penchant for aligning with winners. It was Kobach, O’Malley said, who lost a race for Congress, led the state GOP organization to near-insolvency and registered defeat after defeat in court battles. It’s doubtful Kansans are eager to elect another governor with Washington ambitions, he said.
“Kansans want someone who will listen to them, not someone who listens to Trump Jr.,” O’Malley said. “Deep down, what people really know is that Kobach doesn’t really care about Kansas. He wants to be a D.C. guy.”
Tim Carpenter is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.