TOPEKA — Kris Kobach, the Republican nominee for governor, brought his get-out-the-vote tour to GOP headquarters Thursday evening in Topeka, where he was greeted by an anxious crowd anticipating a close outcome on election night.
The secretary of state appears to be locked in a dead heat with Democrat Laura Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, as moderates weigh their options between those two and independent Greg Orman.
A day earlier, Kobach met with Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, who offered advice to his conservative confidant as they enter the final days of the campaign.
Bannon, who was in town for his own efforts to drive GOP faithful to the polls, is the former CEO of Breitbart, the alt-right platform where Kobach is a paid columnist. The two share an interest in halting "chain migration" and collaborated on the push to get a citizenship question on the next Census.
A photo circulating on social media shows Bannon and Kobach apparently seated for breakfast Wednesday morning in the lounge of the Holiday Inn Express in North Topeka.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said the visual of Kobach and Bannon is a bad look for Kobach entering the final few days of a campaign in which he is struggling with moderate Republicans.
"While he certainly is accepting that he will lose a lot of them on Tuesday," Beatty said, "in an election that’s this close he doesn’t want to lose all of them. Bannon is a very controversial figure in American politics, and some Kansas Republican moderates who were leaning toward voting for Laura Kelly but weren’t there yet might find this picture a signal of things to come from a Kobach governorship, and it will be their excuse to vote Democratic.”
Jim Barnett, a former state legislator who sought the GOP nomination for governor earlier this year, said some moderate Republicans would be concerned about the association between Kobach and Bannon, but doubted it would have much impact.
In traveling the state for the primary campaign, Barnett said, he learned that "many moderate Republicans are pleased with President Donald Trump."
The scene at Republican headquarters was different Thursday from two days earlier, when the office was stripped of campaign signs that typically plaster its windows in the hour before Bannon arrived in Topeka. A throng of supporters greeted Kobach and congressional candidate Steve Watkins as they entered through the well-decorated facade.
Party leadership denies the makeover had anything to do with Bannon. Jim Joice, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, described it as "a little rearranging and cleaning."
"Just trying to make the place a litter nicer and clean up a tad in preparation for tons of volunteers and the bus tour coming by," Joice said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he wasn't buying Joice's explanation. Hensley said the GOP scrubbed its signage and closed the office early in an effort to distance the party from a controversial figure.
"Bannon is such a lightning rod, they didn’t want him to show up at headquarters," Hensley said. "They’ve always had signs in the window for as long as I can remember, and I just felt like it was very strange a week before the election that they would take the signs down, turn the lights off and send everybody home. That’s just not normal behavior for a state party to shut everything down a week before the election.”
Kobach said he and Bannon "talked mainly about campaign logistics." He declined to reveal Bannon's strategic advice.
"Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?" Kobach said.
Orman said Kobach's willingness to meet with Bannon showed poor judgment.
"President Trump spoke of Steve Bannon as a man who has 'lost his mind' and who only wants to burn America down," Orman said, referencing remarks the president made in January. "For Kris Kobach to meet with Steve Bannon is awful judgment. It is another example of why even Republicans voters should be wary of a Kobach administration. A man with poor judgement is a man not to be trusted with an entire government."
Johanna Warshaw, spokeswoman for Kelly's campaign, said while Kobach mines his ties with Washington, Kelly is focused on rebuilding Kansas, funding schools and balancing the budget.
"Kobach can bring in whoever he’d like to try to convince Kansans we need to repeat Sam Brownback’s failed experiment, but it’s unlikely to work," Warshaw said.
Kobach said his opponents are afraid of him because they know he will accomplish what he sets out to do.
"I think they are worried that I really will cut taxes," Kobach said. "They are worried that we really will continue to make Kansas more gun-friendly. We really will push forward pro-life legislation."
He also said he has talked with Trump about "a whole host of immigration-related issues" since February 2016, including birthright citizenship. The president revealed this week he was preparing an executive order that would nullify the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship, but Kobach said he didn't think the president got idea from him.