(This story was updated at 2:15 p.m.)
LEAVENWORTH, Kansas — Republican former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Monday that he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Pat Roberts.
Kobach beat then-Gov. Jeff Colyer in the primary election last year — helped partly by a last-minute endorsement from President Donald Trump — but ultimately lost the governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly.
Now, the politician who’s made a career battling immigration and claiming voter fraud is rampant, says he wants to take his confrontational politics to Capitol Hill.
“The Washington establishment is not going to get what they want,” Kobach said at an event in Leavenworth announcing the campaign.
Kobach is a conservative firebrand, but his campaign had lackluster fundraising and largely relied on money from his running mate. Some Republicans criticized Kobach’s campaign after the election loss for not focusing enough on fundraising and voter turnout.
The former secretary of state said running for Senate will not be like his campaign for governor.
“Raising money is different in a Senate campaign,” Kobach said. “I’ll be raising that money differently and I think you’ll see some surprising results.”
A filing to the federal government for a committee called Kobach for Senate initially misspelled Kobach’s first name as “Chris,” but was later corrected. Signs printed for his announcement in Leavenworth read: “Less government, more liberty” and “Build the wall”.
Kobach takes a hard line on illegal immigration, one of his signature issues, and has had close ties to Trump, who endorsed Kobach the day before the primary election last year.
“Our borders are being overrun,” he said Monday. “The calls for socialism on the left get louder and louder and they don’t stop. If not for the election of Donald Trump, I think our nation would be in a steep, downward spiral right now.”
Kobach said he had spoken with the president in recent days about immigration. In fact, he was considered a candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security, although his reported demands for the job drew negative publicity.
“It became very clear to me that the president needs someone who will lead the charge for him in the United States Senate,” Kobach said.
The Republican field is filling with well-known contenders either exploring a race or outright running. That includes U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of western Kansas, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner and Senate President Susan Wagle.
Another potential candidate is the one Kobach beat in the GOP primary last year, former Gov. Jeff Colyer. Handicappers would likely mark U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who represented Wichita in the U.S. House, a heavy favorite for the Republican nomination if he chose to get in the race.
Kansans haven’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since the 1930s. This year, former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and former U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda have announced campaigns. Democrats are coming off victories last year with heightened interest in the Senate race.
While Kobach was making his announcement early Monday afternoon, the Kansas Democratic Party was already using his candidacy to raise money. “We need to do everything we can to make sure Kobach doesn’t win in 2020,” the party said in a fundraising plea.
Kobach’s conservatism has attracted a loyal following.
“He has a very devoted base of supporters,” said Emporia State political science professor Michael Smith.
The challenge, Smith said, is that Kobach’s controversial nature isn’t as appealing to general election voters as Republican primary voters.
Yet Smith notes that Kansans have a much stronger record of voting Republican in Senate races compared to races for governor.
After the criticism of a poor campaign structure and fundraising in the race for governor last year, some political watchers might think Kobach is doomed to repeat those mistakes this time around. University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said don’t jump to conclusions just yet.
“No two elections are alike,” Miller said. “A Senate race is very different from a gubernatorial race.”
For one, Miller said a U.S. Senate race may attract more national attention and outside money than a state race like governor.
Even though he’s coming off a loss, Smith said Kobach wields one advantage many Senate contenders don’t have: nearly everyone knows the name Kris Kobach.
“Kobach comes in with extremely high name recognition,” Smith said. “It absolutely shakes up the race.”
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.
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