When polls for the midterm elections close tomorrow, the significance of the results will be placed within the parameters of national politics. “Will the House accelerate the Russia investigations?” “Has the Republican hold on the Senate come to an end?” “Can Democrats halt the Trump agenda?” These are, of course, vital issues. But fixing the scope of coverage to the national level restricts the importance of statewide elections to the states themselves, failing to capture the broader implications of local races. In the Kansas gubernatorial race, between Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Democratic State Sen. Laura Kelly, the electoral consequences extend far beyond the state’s budget or control of the redistricting process in 2020. If Kobach, for whom FiveThirtyEight currently projects a 59 percent chance of winning, takes home the governorship, the most basic right — the ability to vote in elections — will be at risk in Kansas.
Kobach’s political career began in 1999, when he won a seat on the city council of Overland Park, Kansas. He burnished his conservative reputation from there; as chairman of the Kansas GOP between 2007 and 2009, he instituted a “loyalty committee” to punish Republican candidates that had the nerve to assist Democratic candidates in any capacity. He captured public attention with fiery rhetoric in speeches, such as when he compared Planned Parenthood to the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. And he hosted a conservative talk radio show until January 2016, introducing himself before each broadcast as the “the A.C.L.U.’s worst nightmare.”
But above all, Kobach is an immigration hawk, with fearful and racially-motivated views of widespread voter fraud that inform his extremely restrictive voting laws. As secretary of state, Kobach implemented a proof-of-citizenship law in 2013 that drew immediate scrutiny from civil liberties groups. This new requirement applied only to voters registering after 2013, a population that is far younger and more ethnically diverse than Kansas as a whole — and almost certainly more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. The ACLU attested that the new law prevented “tens of thousands of Kansans from registering to vote” — one in seven new registrants.
While Kobach views these laws as a necessary countermeasure to pervasive voter fraud, organizations like the ACLU argue that the law’s true purpose is to halt demographic shifts in the electorate by suppressing the vote of young people and people of color. Indeed, voter ID laws that make it harder for new voters to register favor the status quo; in Kansas, that means Republican control in every branch of government.
However, Kobach’s restrictive voter laws are not merely born out of a motivation to preserve partisan influence. His obsession with voter fraud is indelibly linked to maintaining a white electoral majority. In 2014, Kobach agreed with a caller to his radio show that a further increase in immigration from countries in Central America would result in the “ethnic cleansing” of white Americans. Under Kobach, the only polling center in majority-Hispanic Dodge City was moved outside of city limits. And he was an early supporter of President Trump, fixated by the president’s hardline stance against immigration. When Trump asserted — with zero evidence — that he would have won the popular vote, “if (not for) the millions of people who voted illegally,” Kobach was there to agree. “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct,” Kobach trumpeted, “when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular-vote margin.”
In August, with an endorsement from Trump, Kobach won a primary challenge against incumbent Jeff Colyer, running from the right of the sitting governor. In a race that saw over 300,000 votes cast, Kobach won by the narrowest of margins — just 110 votes. On the campaign trail, Kobach has made voting rights a platform issue — he maintains that he wants Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship law to become a “model for the country.” As governor, Kobach would surely continue the expansion of voter ID laws that has characterized his tenure as secretary of state, thus bolstering the Republican hold on the already-conservative state.
Luckily — at least for those who favor basic civil rights — Kobach’s opponent has garnered substantial support from both parties. Laura Kelly, the assistant minority leader in the Kansas Senate, has run a pragmatic campaign against her ideologue opponent. In a state that Trump won by 20 percentage points, and in which Republicans currently hold a 32-8 seat advantage in the state senate, Kelly does not affix her campaign to common tenets of national Democrats. Instead, she focuses on Kobach’s support of tax cuts under former Gov. Sam Brownback, which devastated the state’s budget to the tune of a $600 million deficit.
Her rhetoric similarly paints her as a nonpartisan public worker. “Kansans are a lot like me,” she says. “They’re common-sense, they’re very pragmatic and they’re extraordinarily moderate.” Rather than lambaste Kobach for his draconian voting reforms, she expends her political energy on finding ways to fund education and health care in the wake of enormous mismanagement. Her strategy has worked; former Republican Gov. Bill Graves came out in support of Kelly, and 40 percent of Republicans in the state legislature refused to respond when asked whether they support Kobach.
And while the Sunflower State has a generations-long tradition of supporting Republican candidates in national politics — they have not elected a Democratic senator since 1930 — their gubernatorial preferences are far more cyclical. Three of the last six governors have been Democrats, and the most recent polling in Kansas has Kelly ahead by two points.
In an electoral cycle that has seen attempted voter suppression by multiple GOP candidates across the nation, the results in Kansas will portend the fate of voting rights at large. Kobach wants the power to create “the absolute best legal framework” for sweeping voter ID laws, hoping to set a precedent for the rest of the country to follow. In Georgia, Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp has preemptively begun investigating the Georgia Democratic Party for voter fraud, setting the stage for a flood of restrictive laws should he win. And in North Dakota, the state’s Supreme Court recently upheld a new ID law that prevented 70,000 people from voting in 2012. Indeed, in Kansas and in states throughout the country, the right to vote is on Tuesday’s ballot.
Derek Simshauser ’20 voted today; hopefully you did as well! He can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.