LENEXA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas official who has supported President Donald Trump's claim that millions of people may have voted illegally in last year's election launched a campaign for governor Thursday, sounding conservative themes that echo Trump's appeals to disaffected voters.
Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state in Kansas, gained a national reputation for championing tough voter identification laws and helping to draft proposals in numerous states aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
Trump last month named him as vice chairman of a commission seeking to compile evidence of widespread voting fraud, an unsubstantiated claim that the president has blamed for his popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton. Kobach called the situation a significant problem in Kansas, citing dozens of non-citizens on the state's voter rolls and nine criminal cases he brought as the only chief state elections officer with the power to prosecute election fraud.
Kobach had once been considered a candidate to land a role in the administration. He was photographed going into a meeting with Trump In November with a document outlining homeland security proposals, including possible changes in voting laws.
He jumped into the 2018 governor's race only two days after Kansas legislators enacted a law rolling back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback over Brownback's veto. Kobach excoriated the Legislature's move, calling state government "bloated" and a "monster." He called for term limits for all state officials and restrictions on officials lobbying after leaving office.
"Topeka faces a crisis of leadership," Kobach said during the speech kicking off his campaign. "We're going in the wrong direction."
Kobach opened his campaign at a barn converted into an events center in the Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, the state's most populous county and home to about 22 percent of all Kansas voters. It's crucial, vote-rich territory for any candidate for governor, and Kobach has a strong base there, though he now lives on a farm outside Lawrence, about 30 miles west. He also brings an ardent conservative following into the primary.
"He doesn't mince words or ideas," said Gus Bader, a suburban Kansas City sporting goods salesman and Lebanese immigrant who is a registered Republican and agrees with Kobach's tough stance on immigration.
Kobach, 51, is a strong abortion opponent and gun-rights advocate, Harvard-, Yale- and Oxford-educated former law professor, ex-U.S. Justice Department official and former Kansas Republican Party chairman. He has advised Trump for months, first on immigration, then on election fraud issues.
Before pursuing voter ID laws, Kobach was best known for helping to draft tough laws against illegal immigration, including Arizona's "show your papers" law in 2010. He called Kansas "the sanctuary state of the Midwest" for failing to enact tough immigration policies he's favored.
Trump named Kobach vice chairman of the election fraud commission, with Vice President Mike Pence as chairman. The voter ID laws in Kansas that Kobach advocated have sparked multiple lawsuits from such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union. He has served as Kansas' elected secretary of state since 2011.
Kobach has long faced criticism that his strict voter ID policies create barriers to voting. Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a veteran Topeka Democrat, said through such laws, Kobach has "engaged in voter suppression."
"He's well known, not from the standpoint of being noteworthy, but for being notorious, like gangsters — you know, John Dillinger or Machine Gun Kelly," said Hensley, who was singled out by Kobach as an example of the need for term limits.
Brownback is term-limited, and there has been speculation that he'll resign by the fall to take an ambassador's position in the Trump administration, automatically elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to governor. Colyer is considered a potential Republican candidate regardless, but Kobach brings a base of ardent conservative supporters into the race.
The contest could become crowded. A Wichita oil company owner, Wink Hartman, has been campaigning for the Republican nomination since February, and former state Rep. Ed O'Malley, CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, is exploring the GOP race. On the Democratic side, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former state Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty have announced they're running, though the GOP wields a major electoral advantage in the state.
Kobach has never been shy about weighing in on issues outside the formal bounds of the secretary of state's office.
He's recently been commenting on the Legislature's debate about raising taxes to fix the state budget and provide extra money for public schools. Many voters soured last year on the tax-cutting Brownback experiment initiated in 2012 and elected more Democrats and GOP moderates to the Legislature — setting the stage for this week's rollback.
But Kobach's audience of about 100 people booed the mention of the tax increase, and he pledged to cut spending.
"I will fight against every attempt to raise taxes," he said.
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