Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has joined a crowded field of possible 2018 gubernatorial candidates in his state, dampening speculation that the immigration hardliner might take a job in the administration of Donald Trump.
Kobach’s office confirmed to McClatchy’s Wichita Eagle on Friday that he’s considering a run.
Kobach advised Trump during the 2016 campaign and transition process on voter fraud and immigration, fueling speculation that he might end up with a role in the Trump administration. Now that he has been passed over for U.S. attorney general and secretary of homeland security, he may look to stay in Topeka instead of heading to Washington, D.C., for a second-tier position.
The 2018 Kansas governor’s race has blown wide open with the announcement this week that Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, considered the top contender, would retire from public service.
Other Kansans contemplating runs include Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Overland Park, Kansas.
On the Democratic side, Paul Davis, the former minority leader of the Kansas House, confirmed that he is also considering a second run for governor after losing a heated race to Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who would be the first black governor of Kansas, told the Eagle that he’s been having meetings about a possible campaign as a Democrat.
Brewer said he also has been approached about running for the congressional seat left vacant by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, but he said he was more focused on Kansas.
Before he was tapped by President Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Pompeo also had been seen as an early favorite for the governor’s mansion.
The possibility that Kobach or Brownback could still be tapped for executive branch roles within the Trump administration makes the state’s political outlook even murkier, Davis said.
If Brownback is named an ambassador or asked to serve another role in the administration, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer could run as a sitting governor.
“It reminds me a little bit of 1996 when (Bob) Dole was running for president. There was just a real reshuffling of the deck,” Davis said.
Jenkins, who was in the Kansas Statehouse on Friday, said she had gotten a lot of pressure to run for governor and wanted to announce her decision early to clear the way for other candidates.
“I think a lot of people will look at it and explore it. Some will drop out if they think they’re not getting traction,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. . "And sometimes there’s discussions where people may say, look, we’ll come back together in three months where if somebody’s clearly the leader in polling and fundraising maybe some others will drop out.”
Greg Orman, who mounted an independent challenge to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, said he hasn’t made any decisions about running for office. But he said there would be an opportunity for an independent to run for governor.
Schmidt, an Independence Republican, has pursued mostly bipartisan causes during his six years as attorney general: combating human trafficking, reforming the state’s open records law and protecting Kansans from consumer fraud.
Kobach, on the other hand, has plunged into some of the nation’s most divisive debates, becoming a regular commentator on cable news about voter fraud and illegal immigration. He has championed stricter voting laws in Kansas that critics say make it more difficult to vote, and he became the only secretary of state in the nation with prosecutorial power in 2015.
“Kobach is more, I think, ideological. He appeals to the people that have very strong conservative feelings whether their issue might be 10th amendment, you know, keep the federal government out, or immigration issues,” Barker said.
Conversely, Schmidt “seems to be more businesslike, executing his office,” Barker said.
Schmidt won re-election as the state’s top law enforcement officer by a 33.5 percentage point margin in 2014. Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Schmidt could present himself as "the steady hand" for Republican voters to unite around.
“I’m not planning on a voluntary retirement from public life, so I intend to be on the ballot. I haven’t made a decision for what office yet,” Schmidt said when asked about his plans for 2018.
Schmidt could run for a third term as attorney general or seek Jenkins’ congressional seat since he lives in her district. He said he has not ruled out a run for governor.
“I very much like what I’m doing,” he said. “I also recognize that we’re going to need a strong governor and I look forward to working with everybody as part of the Republican decision-making process to figure out who best fits where.”
Unless Brownback and the current Legislature are able to pass a long-term budget fix over the next two years, whoever takes over the office will face tough decisions about the state’s finances.
Barker said a gubernatorial run by Yoder is a possibility. Yoder served as budget chairman in the Kansas House before getting elected to Congress in 2010.
“He’d have either route open to him. He’s getting seniority in Congress. He knows how to get things done… I also know it’s very hard on the family because (his wife) Brooke and the two girls are back in Johnson County,” Barker said.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Manhattan Republican, succeeded Brownback in the U.S. Senate six years ago. His office would not comment on whether he would have any interest in replacing Brownback as governor.
Beatty said that traditionally Kansans have looked to state-level officeholders for their governors. Brownback, who was elected while serving in the U.S. Senate, was an exception.
“We’re probably going back to the norm, which is gubernatorial candidates coming from the state versus Washington, D.C.,” Beatty said.
Colyer, the lieutenant governor, “certainly looks like he’s positioning himself to run for governor,” Beatty said. “The last six months he’s much more prominent in the administration.”
Colyer’s spokeswoman, Laura McCabe, said that he "has not even considered" whether to mount a run at this point. "That’s quite a ways away," she said.
Barker said any nominee will have to distinguish himself from Brownback and that will be most difficult for Colyer. Brownback has faced low approval ratings during his second term. A September poll by the Morning Consult found him to be the least popular governor in the nation with 23 percent of Kansans approving of his performance.
Beatty said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, could mount a credible run for governor, noting that she’s shown a willingness to oppose Brownback on key issues.
Wagle’s office said in a statement that she is "singularly focused on passing a balanced budget and leading the Senate through this legislative session" and will "evaluate how she can best serve Kansans moving forward, and what that role may look like, at the appropriate time."
Former state Rep. Ed O’Malley, who runs the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center, also announced in a YouTube video earlier in the month that he was forming an exploratory campaign.
Kansans have elected the candidate who belongs to the opposite political party of the sitting president, in every gubernatorial election since 1990.
Beatty said Democrats, who picked up 13 seats in the Legislature this year despite Trump’s double-digit win in the state, stand a stronger chance of winning the governor’s office next year with a Republican in the White House.
The most obvious candidate would be Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who narrowly lost to Brownback in 2014 and has remained a key fundraiser for the party. Davis, an attorney, is representing suspended voters in a federal lawsuit against Kobach that will continue to play out as the 2018 election approaches.
“That’s the guy who wants it from what we can see,” Beatty said.
Davis said he has been having conversations “with a variety of people” about what he might do in 2018. He said he wants to wait until the end of the legislative session before he decides about the race.
“This is not necessarily an infomercial for myself, but I think the state really needs somebody who has a pretty broad understanding of state government and has the ability to bring in good people who are going to redirect a lot of these policies that have not worked,” Davis said when asked his thoughts on what skills the next governor needs.
Beatty praised Davis’ ability as a fundraiser, but said that he will have to mount a substantially different campaign in 2018 if he wants to win.
“He would have to do something different because in this era you have to be much stronger in your message and I think they ran a relatively cautious campaign,” Beatty said. “Davis ran a campaign like he believed the polls, whereas in the state of Kansas you never want to believe those polls.”
On the 2014 campaign trail, Davis had repeatedly warned that the state was headed for a fiscal crisis. Brownback dismissed those claims as “Chicken Little sky is falling” rhetoric, but the week after the election the state’s budget director announced that Kansas faced a massive budget gap.
“We’ve got to get the state back on sound financial footing,” Davis said.
Brewer, who served as Wichita’s mayor from 2007 to 2015, also pointed to the budget as the state’s most pressing issue and called for rolling back Brownback’s tax polices.
“We’ve got to figure out this budget problem…You’ve got to have revenue coming in to repair the damage that’s been done,” Brewer said.
Brewer said people have called him and encouraged him to consider running. He said he’s been exploring the option, but has no deadline for a decision.
Brewer would make history as the state’s first African American governor.
“I’ve never given that any thought,” Brewer said when asked about this fact. “What I look at is a community and a state that needs leadership.”
Brewer pointed to his track record as Wichita mayor, saying that he led the city during the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and “we managed to survive.”
Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, who stepped down last April, said he would not run for governor in 2018. But he said there may be an opportunity to run for office down the road.
“The timing right now is not good,” he said. “I've just started with a law firm I've committed to.”
Lindsay Wise contributed to this report from Washington.