Fresh off a victory that cemented his latest, controversial, pick for the nation’s high court, President Donald Trump came to Kansas Saturday night hoping to transfer his popularity in the state to two fellow Republicans.
Trump arrived just hours after Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court — the most controversial appointment to the court in generations. He was in regular rally form, playing to an adoring crowd of some 10,000 thrilled supporters at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka.
He peppered his speech with the usual condemnation of Democrats, dismissal of media for cranking out critical coverage he sees as “fake news,” and talk of the political victories that have marked his first year and a half as president.
Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in Kansas two years ago. On Saturday, he championed the campaigns of two candidates locked in far tighter races.
Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach finds himself in a dead heat with Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly. Political newcomer Steve Watkins is struggling to keep an eastern Kansas congressional seat in Republican hands, a job made all the harder after reporting showed he exaggerated key parts of his biography.
Kobach and Trump have been kindred souls from the start. Both have shared often-unsubstantiated claims about crime waves by people immigrating to the U.S. illegally. They’ve both also trafficked in debunked theories about those immigrants voting illegally by the millions.
When Trump launched a commission last year aimed at exposing what he contended was widespread vote cheating in the 2016 election, he turned to Kobach as his key adviser on the issue. That panel dissolved prematurely without any findings.
On Saturday night, Trump lauded Kobach. He portrayed Kelly as someone unconcerned about illegal immigration and eager to lavish those who come to the country illicitly with welfare benefits.
“(Kobach) is a tireless champion for border security,” the president told the crowd. “He’ll protect your family. … Laura Kelly … supports giving welfare benefits to the illegal aliens.”
Earlier, Kobach had taken the stage and repeated a line he’s used repeatedly in the campaign in praise of Republican-authored federal tax cuts.
“I want to do for Kansas, what President Trump has done for America,” he said.
That prompted the crowd to chant: “Kobach! Kobach! Kobach! …”
He also hit on themes that have come to define his political career — an aggressive stance toward immigration that paints immigrants as an existential threat to the country’s well-being.
“I’m so glad that America gets it and knows that illegal means illegal,” he said to cheers. “It’s time to put Kansans first, not illegal aliens.”
He touted a law he pushed through the Kansas Legislature requiring voters to produce proof of citizenship to register.
“It’s time,” he said, “for other states to care about proof of citizenship, too, just like Kansas.”
Kobach did not note that a federal court rejected the law, and he was held in contempt for failing to follow court orders on the issue.
The president used the Watkins race to warn the Republican audience that if GOP candidates such as Watkins lost, Congress would be lost to Democrats’ “radical agenda … a socialist takeover of healthcare.”
Watkins once again reminded the audience of his military record — graduating from West Point and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He did not bring up the issues that have gotten him into trouble — claims he built a large business that wasn’t his and supposed heroics after a Nepal earthquake that his companions have said simply weren’t possible.
Instead, he gloried in the moment of sharing a stage with Trump.
“Kansans can do anything. I’m proof of that. I grew up a few miles away, and here I am standing up next to the leader of the free world," Watkins told the crowd.
In his time in war zones, he said, “I have seen the devil. But I have also seen fighters. Donald Trump is a fighter.”
Much of the rest of Trump's speech was a combination of throw-out-the-bums lines he’s been using since his presidential campaign began in 2015. (“This is your time to choose … whether we turn backward to the failure and frustration of the past or continue to an American greatness of the future.”)
He also took credit for a booming economy that’s produced record-low unemployment rates and a bullish stock market, for dumping a nuclear arms deal with Iran, and for recrafting the NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
“The only reason to vote Democrat,” he said, “is if you’re getting tired of winning.”
It was just the sort of stick-it-to-’em rhetoric the crowd was eager to hear. Hundreds began lining up on a chilly morning outside the hall where Trump would come in the evening. Many were drawn by the success he represents to them.
“He’s not one who’s going to be swayed by political money,” said Nathalie Higerd of Gem, Kansas. “And he’s working to improve our economy.”
Trump had many good things to say about his presidency, much of which partisans would challenge. But they’d be hard-pressed to deny he already has a legacy on the federal bench. Within hours of his Topeka speech, he added another monumental win when the Senate voted to approve Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the new justice was sworn in.
Yet that choice split the country, partly because Kavanaugh is so conservative. It also marked a loss for the #MeToo movement that’s risen in the last year in response to celebrated cases of powerful men assaulting and harassing women.
A high school acquaintance of Kavanaugh’s, Christine Blasey Ford, testified to the U.S. Senate that she was “100 percent” certain the future judge had tried to rape her at a teen drinking party decades before.
The Republican majority in the Senate ultimately chose to believe Kavanaugh’s angry denials. A week ago, Trump had mocked Ford. On Saturday, he criticized Democrats for delaying the appointment and challenging Kavanugh’s version of events.
“He’s, like, a perfect person. … The finest legal mind, one of the finest human beings,” Trump said. “That extra week was a great thing because it showed no corroboration (of Ford’s account). … His family … what they had to take was disgraceful.”
Scott Canon is digital editor of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon.
Nomin Ujiyediin reports out of Topeka for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on @NominUJ.
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