At a campaign rally in Topeka earlier this month, the tough talk on immigration from Republican gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach was a crowd pleaser.
“We’ve worked on a number of things, but the most important is stopping illegal immigration,” Kobach said to a cheering audience.
Kobach was standing next to President Donald Trump, who had kind words for the Kansas secretary of state, who’s advised the president on immigration and proposed wording for a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
“He is a tireless champion for border security,” Trump said. “He’ll fight for you every single day. He doesn't stop. He’ll protect your family. He’ll protect your children.”
Kobach’s campaign for governor is one of two hotly contested races in Kansas revealing a divide over immigration policy. In the 3rd Congressional District, incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder has rejected the Trump administration’s harshest tactics and rhetoric.
Kobach has made a career out of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. As secretary of state, he’s pushed for rules to require that people show proof of citizenship when registering to vote. As a private attorney, he worked with cities across the country to help pass ordinances that make hiring or renting to undocumented immigrants unlawful.
At the rally, Kobach warned that immigrants here illegally are a drain on the state’s finances.
“It’s time to put Kansans first, not illegal aliens,” he said. Once again the crowd cheered in approval.
That sentiment plays well with voters who helped Trump win Kansas by a wide margin in 2016. It also plays in rural parts of the state where some people are anxious about immigrants bringing crime.
However, the influential Kansas Farm Bureau couldn’t agree on who to endorse for governor. Rich Felts, the group’s president, said Kobach’s hardline stance on immigration may have factored in the lack of consensus.
And Kobach’s rhetoric may also hurt him with voters in the growing suburbs of Kansas City.
That’s where Rep. Yoder is taking a more moderate tone when it comes to immigration. He’s been endorsed by Trump but didn’t appear at the rally.
Yoder supports Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and the border wall but has said he’s also willing to work across the aisle.
“I … supported a Democratic plan that would make sure that DACA kids can’t be deported,” Yoder told host Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up To Date. “I also supported a Democratic plan that would ensure that we can’t separate parents from their children.”
Yoder came to the aid of an Indian woman who lost her legal status in the United States after her husband was murdered in a hate crime in Olathe. Sunayana Dumala has endorsed the congressman in a new ad.
Yoder is clearly trying to win over moderates, but his approach has alienated some further to the right, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Ingraham blasted Yoder for supporting a Democratic plan that would make it easier for migrants fleeing domestic abuse to get asylum in the United States.
“Your family history shouldn’t be allowed to thwart the president’s immigration agenda, and frankly imperil the party’s prospects in the midterms,” she told her television audience.
Yoder eventually backed away from the Democratic plan citing concerns that it would allow millions of people to potentially make fraudulent claims and take advantage of the system.
The 3rd District is increasingly home to wealthy, college-educated people. And it’s skewing more Democratic. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the district in the presidential race two years ago.
“You know, [Yoder] really hasn’t walked away from Trump’s policies,” said University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller. “Yet he’s attempted to say things or express concern over things like children being detained that might seem more sympathetic to what’s really a swing district that he represents.”
To further demonstrate he’s the centrist in the race, Yoder has tried to make his Democratic challenger, Sharice Davids, seem too radical for his district.
“Certainly, I’ve had moderate people tell me they don’t like the gubernatorial nominee,” Yoder said. “But for the same reason, you shouldn’t like [Sharice Davids] for Kansas.”
He’s focused a lot of attention on comments she made about defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Congressional Republicans’ super PAC and Yoder’s campaign have both turned those comments into attack ads. Davids put out her own ad saying they twisted her words.
It’s unclear which strategy will work for the two Republicans — reaching out to moderates, or ignoring them and relying on Trump’s base.
Brian Grimmett, based at KMUW in Wichita, is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a statewide collaboration between KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.