OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — Donald Trump Jr. appeared at a fundraiser Tuesday evening for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's campaign for governor, highlighting how Kobach has closer ties to the president than any fellow Republican in the crowded race.
Kobach has advised the White House and is serving as vice chairman of a presidential commission on election fraud, boosting his national profile as an advocate of tough voter ID and immigration policies. His early campaign for governor has sounded themes similar to those President Donald Trump emphasized last year on the campaign trail.
He sounded those themes again during a brief speech at a dinner for about 400 people, followed by an informal conversation with the younger Trump, both of them seated at a table on a stage. Trump Jr. reminisced about his father, criticized news organizations and political correctness and talked about what he saw as his father's appeal as a "blue-collar billionaire."
"I think he's actually given conservatives the ability to actually to feel free to speak up again," the younger Trump said.
The elder Trump carried Kansas by 20 percentage points, but Democrats hope to make inroads into the state's all-GOP congressional delegation next year by attacking the president's policies and appealing to disaffected Republican moderates. Kobach's solid base on the right could be enough to win the August 2018 GOP primary, particularly with a large field.
"He's basically the Trump candidate," said Daniel Cossins, a 20-year-old computer programmer from the town of Spring Hill, on the south edge of the Kansas City area. He called Kobach's ties to Trump "a big boost for him."
Kobach supporters were paying $150 or $200 a plate at the dinner, and tickets to a VIP reception with the president's eldest son beforehand cost $1,000.
Kobach told the crowd that in pushing for tough state policies on illegal immigration and shrinking state government, "All it takes is leadership and the political will to fight the fight."
The event also drew more than 40 protesters to the corner of a street leading into the hotel in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park where the fundraiser was held. They held signs with slogans such as "Save Our State" and "Liars Club Meeting Here Tonight." They were protesting not only Kobach, but President Donald Trump and his eldest son and the Trump administration's policies.
Al Frisby, a 71-year-old retired teacher and Democrat from the Kansas City suburb of Merriam, said he's most concerned about Kobach's advocacy of tough voter ID laws, which he views as voter suppression. He called Kobach "an evil person."
"We need to get rid of him. We don't want him for our governor," said Frisby, the local county chairman for the liberal group MoveOn, acknowledging that Kobach's affiliation with the Trumps probably helps him because Kansas is "red to the bone."
Cossins was part of a group of about a dozen young counter-protesters on the opposite side of the street, holding a pro-Trump banner. Cossins wore the red "Make America Great Again" cap associated with the elder Trump's presidential campaign. He likes Kobach's advocacy of tough policies against illegal immigration.
"He understands his market, and he courts his market," said state Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Overland Park Republican who dislikes Kobach. "He is very clear on who he is and what his identity is."
Kobach was the most prominent state official to endorse the elder Trump before the state's presidential caucuses in March 2016 and has said he met the president's son through a mutual friend. Kobach advised the campaign on issues such as illegal immigration, publicly proposing a way for the U.S. to force Mexico to pay for a wall along their border.
Ten other Republicans have formed campaign committees. They include Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is waiting to take over for term-limited GOP Gov. Sam Brownback following Brownback's nomination by the president for an ambassador post.
Two other Republican candidates, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Topeka physician, and former state Rep. Ed O'Malley, who founded a Wichita leadership center, criticized Kobach ahead of the fundraiser. O'Malley said the event showed Kobach wants to "hobnob" with the president's son and "isn't really interested in Kansas."
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