WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — With Kris Kobach as the Republican nominee for governor, Kansas Democrats may have the candidate they want.
Kobach, who serves as secretary of state, has earned a national reputation for his tough views on illegal immigration, his push for voting laws such as photo ID and proof of citizenship requirements and a full-throated endorsement from President Donald Trump.
But Democrat Laura Kelly, a longtime state senator, will have to navigate a minefield, including the popularity of Trump among state Republicans and the prospect of an independent candidate who could pick off the moderates and independents she needs to defeat Kobach in November.
"The question is, what's going to happen with moderate Republicans?" said Joan Wagnon, past chair of the state Democratic Party. "At the end of the day, Republicans have a tendency to vote for their party in Kansas, so that's an obstacle for us."
Kobach also has challenges as he looks to maintain Republican control of the governor's mansion, with an urgent need to unify Republicans after a razor-thin win over Gov. Jeff Colyer that was just resolved late Tuesday when Colyer conceded. Colyer is the state's former lieutenant governor who was elevated to the top job in January when then-Gov. Sam Brownback left for a job as a U.S. ambassador.
There's no guarantee that the business wing of the Republican Party will back Kobach given the likely candidacy of independent Greg Orman, a Kansas City-area businessman who ran a strong campaign for U.S. Senate two years ago. In that race, the Democrat dropped out and Orman lost to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts by 10.5 percentage points.
In Kansas, Republicans are just shy of 44 percent of registered voters, compared to 24 percent that are registered Democrats and 31 percent who are unaffiliated.
Brownback and his economic policies while governor have emerged as a central campaign theme heading into November, with Kelly and the Democrats noting Kobach has said he supports tax cuts along with a reduction in spending. The Democratic Governors Association on Wednesday pushed out an online ad saying Kobach would represent "four more years of Brownback failures."
Brownback's aggressive income tax cuts triggered budget problems and caused his approval levels to plummet. Lawmakers in 2017 rolled back most of the cuts.
Kobach has said the previous tax cuts were implemented in a "fiscally irresponsible way," and said he supports tax cuts but spending must also be reduced.
Kelly sees an opening and wants to keep the focus on Brownback and not President Trump.
"Kris Kobach has made it very clear that he wants to return to the failed policies that Sam Brownback brought to the state, that really devastated this state," Kelly said in an interview Wednesday. "This race is not about the president or others back in Washington D.C. This is about what is going on in Kansas and what we need to do to fix our state."
Kobach knows he will need to keep his base energized, and Trump will likely play a big role in his campaign. In Kansas, there are no runoffs so a governor could be elected with less than 40 percent of the vote.
On Wednesday, Kobach said he expects the president will come to Kansas. Kobach has served as an unofficial adviser to Trump on immigration issues and was also tapped to serve as vice chairman of the president's commission on voter fraud which was later disbanded.
"He's reiterated that he's 100 percent behind us, and he's going to do what he can to make sure that we win this election," Kobach told reporters.
Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she sees an opportunity for Kelly to craft a coalition of Democrats, moderates and independents — something that helped Sebelius win four statewide races.
"Kansas is a state where staying out of the national jetstream is often helpful, and this is really about issues in this state," Sebelius said, noting that Kansans have elected an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as governor in recent years.
It remains to be seen if moderate Republicans can be persuaded to switch parties on the Brownback argument alone, especially considering Brownback won re-election in 2014 even amid criticism over the tax cuts and Kobach had no role in implementing or approving the tax cuts. Orman, the independent candidate, is also looking to link Brownback and Kobach.
"Mr. Kobach's full embrace of the failed Brownback tax experiment and his party's Washington agenda would starve this state's fragile recovery and run Kansas back into the ditch," said Sam Edelen, Orman's campaign spokesman.
For Dick Bond, a moderate Republican and former state senator from Johnson County, Kobach represents a faction of the GOP that he cannot support.
Bond, 82, said he plans to vote for Kelly, who he served with in the state Senate.
"Secretary Kobach probably is just a meaner version of Donald Trump, and he cannot unify the Republican Party," Bond said.
But there were signs Wednesday that Republicans were falling in line behind Kobach. Colyer, in his concession, pledged to work to help Kobach win in November.
"It kind of became clear that this would either be a long, dragged out fight that would hurt the party, and we just weren't interested in doing that," Colyer's spokesman Kendall Marr said Wednesday. "It didn't look like we were going to have the votes even if we were going to go through that process at that point."
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.
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