Kobach supporters will gather Monday amid speculation over Kansas Senate run

Update: Kansas Republican Kris Kobach officially kicked off his campaign for U.S. Senate Monday. Read the latest here.

Kris Kobach is telling supporters to gather in Leavenworth Monday afternoon, fueling speculation that he could be preparing a run for the U.S. Senate.

The former Kansas secretary of state has hinted at his interest in retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat for months, but he could face opposition from national Republican groups if he enters the race.

Kobach sent out a news release Monday morning announcing a 1 p.m. speech at the Leavenworth Riverfront Community Center. The release did not not specify whether Kobach would be making a campaign announcement, but the email was sent from an account linked to his old campaign website.

Kobach lost the 2018 race for Kansas governor by 5 percentage points despite President Donald Trump’s full-throated support in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.

Kobach spoke at the Leavenworth County Republican Party’s annual picnic on Saturday. It was one of his first appearances at a major political event in Kansas since his defeat.

His comments focused on his role in an effort to build a border wall with private dollars. Kobach serves as general counsel and as a board member for We Build the Wall, Inc., which has raised more than $24 million for barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kobach didn’t mention a potential Senate candidacy at the event. But this weekend he and former staffers invited a small group of Kansas Republicans to a Monday afternoon gathering at the Leavenworth Riverfront Community Center.

State Rep. David French, a Lansing Republican, said Sunday he caught wind of the second event during the picnic but was unaware of what Kobach would discuss.

“I don’t think he told anybody what he was coming for. He did talk yesterday at the picnic about his building the wall project. So I don’t know if it’s some kind of a fundraiser for that or what,” French said. “People are speculating that he may be announcing tomorrow. That’s pure speculation as far as I know. I have nothing to verify that.”

Rett Rogers, chair of the Leavenworth County Republican Party, confirmed Kobach plans to have an event in the city on Monday, but he didn’t offer any other details.

“I know he’s having something here tomorrow. I just don’t know what it’s about,” Rogers said

Two other Kansas Republican sources with direct knowledge of the event, who asked for anonymity to speak about it, confirmed that Kobach has instructed supporters to gather in Leavenworth. The northeast Kansas town has been a stronghold for Kobach in past campaigns.

Kobach did not respond to phone calls Sunday, but he sent out the release confirming the event Monday morning.

A former state GOP chair, he remains popular with a sizable segment of the Kansas Republican primary electorate because of his outspoken advocacy against illegal immigration and his frequent cable news appearances.

But some former Republican allies are skeptical of his ability to avoid the missteps he made as a gubernatorial candidate.

Kobach struggled to raise money and failed to reach out to moderate voters during the general election. GOP strategists have repeatedly blasted his campaign for its disorganization and poor voter turnout strategy.

“With all that Kansas Republicans are facing next cycle, the last thing we need is another Kobach debacle which distracts and divides us. If he cares about the conservative movement the right decision is not to run,” said Jared Suhn, a Republican consultant who oversaw Kobach’s early campaign for governor but quit in the spring of 2018 after disagreements with the candidate.

His entry into the Senate race could also cause national Democrats to steer money into Kansas to flip the open seat, which has been in Republican hands for eight decades but appears more competitive in light of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s victory in 2018.

The Kansas Republican failed to land a position in Trump’s administration after his demands for access to a private plane and a walk-in privileges to the Oval Office were leaked to The New York Times.

A Kobach candidacy could reignite efforts to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the race. Pompeo has repeatedly downplayed his interest in a run, but he remains the first choice for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Groups with ties to McConnell have indicated that they could spend money against Kobach in a primary.

“Kansas Republicans deserve a nominee who can win. Given the result in last year’s gubernatorial race, we’re watching this race closely and will make a decision on our potential involvement when the time comes,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC with ties to McConnell.

Shorman reported from Topeka.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.