Coming into Tuesday’s election, many political watchers thought Kris Kobach had gone too far. In his first term as Kansas secretary of state, the nationally influential Republican had put his anti-immigration crusade into action, including implementing stringent voter ID laws and a proof of citizenship requirement so strict that it disqualified 21,000 federally eligible voters from participating in state races. His opponent compared Kobach’s tactics to voter suppression during Jim Crow and called on voters to repudiate him at the polls.
They did not. Kobach cruised to a 19-point re-election victory, carrying all but the state’s two most liberal counties and garnering more votes than even his victorious Republican incumbent colleagues Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. “I think my race was a referendum,” a satisfied Kobach told reporters on election night. “There will be some just voting on a partisan basis and some voting because they like what I’ve done on illegal immigration in my spare time, but I think most people see this as a race about photo ID and proof of citizenship.”
University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis agrees. “Obviously Kobach was not penalized for going around the country taking on these immigration cases. I think he keeps on doing what he’s doing,” he said.
The work Kobach does in his spare time has given him his national profile. He was an author of Mitt Romney’s doctrine of “self-deportation,” in which conditions become so unpleasant for undocumented immigrants (usually from Mexico and Central America) that they will flee the United States. He has also consulted with many other states’ officials on immigration, and is widely regarded as the architect of Arizona’s draconian SB 1070 immigration statute — known as the “show me your papers” law because it permits police to demand proof of legal residency, at any time, so long as “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien.”
The Harvard and Yale-educated lawyer, and onetime aide to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, was an undergraduate protégé of Samuel Huntington, the political theorist who, in 1992, prophesied a coming “clash of civilizations” between European-dominated countries (including the United States) and the rest of the world.
In Kansas, he has used the office of secretary of state to continue advancing that mission. The statewide position has a variety of tasks, including overseeing notaries and business registration. More importantly, it oversees voter registration and all statewide elections — including his own. He is also the creator of Interstate Crosscheck, a program nominally meant to prevent the almost nonexistent problem of double voting, but which critics say has disproportionately targeted millions of black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters.
Despite his substantial influence, the job of secretary of state remains fairly obscure even within Kansas. That, along with the behind-the-scenes nature of much of Kobach’s work, may have hurt opponents’ efforts to galvanize opposition to his policies, said Clarissa Martínez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza. “His national role as one of the main advocates for anti-immigrant laws across the country is perhaps not as well known within the state,” she surmised.
In fact, in an election-eve poll, nearly a third of Kansas Latino voters said they were planning to support Kobach — though the vast majority, 65 percent, said they would oppose him. Ultimately the Latino vote, which only makes up about 6 percent of the Kansas electorate, played a very small role in the race. In southwestern Finney County — where 47 percent of the 37,000 residents were Hispanic in 2010, according to the University of Kansas’ Institute for Policy and Social Research — Kobach won in a landslide, 4,600 to 1,926. The story was essentially the same throughout the increasingly Hispanic counties dotting the state’s southwest. Low turnout, low registration among Latino voters and a lack of education about the secretary of state’s role may have all played a part, Martínez de Castro said.
The victory bolsters Kobach’s standing in Kansas, and possibly beyond. Over the next four years, Kobach plans to seek prosecutorial powers that would allow his office to directly go after suspected cases of voter fraud, “alien” or otherwise, said Kobach spokeswoman V. Kay Curtis.
It is hard to predict how an increasingly public profile for this controversial state official might play on the national stage, in a party caught between appealing to an anti-immigrant base in local races, while trying to appeal to Latino and other minority voters nationally. (After Romney’s failure to win the White House, national GOP leaders distanced themselves from the “self-deportation” idea, but Kobach has continued pressing for it.) The telegenic, articulate secretary of state may not care either way. “You look ahead there’s a governor’s race in four years,” Loomis said. “He’s very ambitious. I think all that means we’ll see more Kris Kobach on the national scene.”