White House

White House sours on Kris Kobach for Senate, Cabinet

Republican hardliner Kris Kobach’s inner circle is hinting that he has President Donald Trump’s support for either a Senate run or Cabinet position.

They’re wrong.

White House officials have grown frustrated enough with the narrative being pushed by the Kobach camp that a senior administration official took the rare step of trying to squash the speculation.

“Kris is not under consideration for a Cabinet position,” a senior White House official told McClatchy.

Ever since losing the Kansas governor’s race in November, Kobach has not been shy about his political ambitions. He and his campaign team have touted his name for statewide office in 2020 and used his relationship with Trump to raise speculation about a possible Cabinet post in the administration.

Trump likes Kobach and hasn’t forgotten the role Kobach played in helping the real estate developer with no political experience get to the White House. But the president is worried about Kansas and the GOP’s hold on the Senate after state Republicans were humiliated by Democrats in 2018, when then-state Sen. Laura Kelly beat Kobach for governor and political newcomer Sharice Davids unseated incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder.

According to three Republicans familiar with the president’s concerns about Kansas and Kobach, the soon-to-be open Senate seat is more important to Trump than any personal debt the president might feel toward the former Kansas secretary of state for his work in the 2016 campaign. Trump was unimpressed with Kobach’s 2018 campaign and he is not convinced that putting Kobach atop the Kansas ticket again is a winning strategy for the GOP.

“It is clear that he did not run a good campaign and it is a great concern that he’s not capable of winning a statewide race again in Kansas,” said one of those Republican sources.

Kobach certainly has not been cut off from the White House; he continues to meet and speak with the president about immigration issues. But behind the scenes, Trump has been huddling with White House officials and Republican operatives about the importance of the Kansas race, and how to “nudge” Kobach away from running again, said one of the Republicans familiar with those conversations.

Indeed, the prospect of another Kobach run has fueled a thus-far unsuccessful effort by national Republicans to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the Senate race.

“It’s extremely important to the president who wins the Senate seat for Kansas,” said David Kensinger, a political operative in Kansas who has managed statewide campaigns for Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kensinger, who has ties to Vice President Mike Pence, said that if Kobach looked poised to capture the GOP nomination, “There’s a scenario where the White House might be asking Pompeo to run.”

Kobach’s team has been nurturing a narrative that suggests a close relationship between Kobach and Trump since 2016.

The president endorsed Kobach in a historically close GOP primary race for governor weeks after a federal judge ordered Kobach to attend remedial law classes. Kobach won the primary by 343 votes after Trump’s endorsement, but went onto lose the general election by 5 percentage points in the heavily Republican state.

Kobach visited the White House in mid-February during the same week he appeared at a rally at the U.S. Capitol in support of Trump’s proposed border wall.

“The meeting between the President and Kris Kobach was a drop by. It did not include a discussion about Mr. Kobach’s political future,” said the senior administration official.

(Sources close to Kobach said the meeting was scheduled before Kobach arrived in Washington, disputing the characterization of “a drop by.”)

During his Washington trip, Kobach also met with Sen. Pat Roberts, the retiring Kansas Republican whose seat Kobach might seek in 2020.

Roberts said Kobach said at the meeting that he was up for a job in the Trump administration.

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Kobach said he is “still considering seriously” a run for Senate. But he declined to say whether Trump supported his candidacy.

“I have talked to the president recently, but I don’t want to discuss what I’ve discussed -- the subject matter,” Kobach said the same week he visited the White House.

Kobach’s 2018 campaign manager J.R. Claeys increased speculation about Kobach’s relationship with Trump last week when he said in a text message that “a cabinet position is a very real possibility” for Kobach. “Based on his resume, he’d be a strong Secretary of Homeland Security,” Claeys said.

Told that a White House official disputed the suggestion that Kobach was up for a Cabinet position, Claeys said he stood by his statement based on Kobach’s resume.

“I don’t have some insider knowledge,” Claeys, a Republican state representative from Salina, said in a phone call. He also said that the only people who he knew that were objecting to a campaign by Kobach in 2020 were political consultants in Kansas.

He later called a reporter asking if he could amend his statement.

“The Department of Homeland Security position is currently occupied, so no one is currently under consideration. I’m certain that if and when the position is open Kris will be under consideration,” Claeys said.

Jonathan Shorman and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.