The Trailer: A Republican fight in Kansas

LIBERAL, Kan. — The ad blends right in with the miasma of pre-primary campaign commercials. An army of identical men in suits marches across the screen. A Senate candidate floats through the Washington “swamp” in a cartoon canoe, as a narrator praises his outsider rival.

“Mitt Romney Republicans and Never Trumpers are coming for Kris Kobach,” the voice warns. “They think Kobach’s too conservative.”

Republicans aren’t running that ad. It’s one of four placed by Sunflower State PAC, created by Democrats to help Kobach, Kansas’s former secretary of state and one of his party’s most divisive figures, power through the Aug. 4 primary against Rep. Roger Marshall. Joe Biden’s party considers Kobach the easiest candidate to beat, but the primary unfolding across the state looks like Trump-era primaries everywhere: a Republican family feud over who would deliver more for the president.

“I meet with the president whenever I’m in D.C.,” Kobach told a room full of Republicans in this small city on Sunday, near the end of one of the “Constitution 101” town halls he mixes with traditional campaign events. “I talk to him on the phone all the time. I’ve been advising him on immigration policy since 2016.”

Nobody disputes this — not the Democrats who think Kobach is beatable, and not the Republican establishment figures who fear the same thing. The Harvard, Yale and Oxford-educated Kobach is arguably the most influential Republican politician of his generation in writing restrictive immigration policies and hunting, if often in vain, for voter fraud. 

But two years ago, Kobach ran for governor and lost to Democrat Laura Kelly, a striking result in this conservative state. Images from that campaign still appear in his TV ads, suggesting the blessing of a president who has not weighed in on the race. Without an official intervention, national Republicans have created a PAC of their own to stop Kobach, often recycling attacks — as the candidate never fails to note — that originated with liberal magazines or think tanks. The upshot, every time, is that there is only one candidate in the race who has fumbled away an election. 

“He’s a failed candidate who failed President Trump and failed the Kansas people,” Marshall said in an interview. “It’s nothing personal. But there was a poll in Kansas about 18 months ago — it was called the governor’s election. He lost that, and now we live with the consequences of a Democrat as governor, whether it’s wearing masks or closing our schools or closing our businesses.”

Kobach’s 2018 defeat was the first of his electoral career, which began when he captured the secretary of state’s office in the 2010 tea party wave. Capitalizing on the controversies around ACORN, a community organizing group with an expansive voter registration program, Kobach obtained new powers for his office and began tightening voter registration rules and pursuing lawsuits to punish suspected voter fraud. At the same time, he shaped Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law, which gave police new powers to detain undocumented immigrants and barred “sanctuary” policies. When Trump arrived in Washington, Kobach had already written much of his agenda; when Trump created a short-lived panel to investigate “voter fraud,” Kobach was on it.

And then, back home, he lost. Kobach has thought a lot about why. He doesn’t dispute the criticisms flung at him two years ago, that he raised too little money, hired the wrong staff and led a disorganized campaign. But he points out that he got 20,000 more votes than Sam Brownback, the last Republican governor, got in 2014. He argues that Brownback’s unpopular education cuts powered the Democrats’ campaign and helped them blow away turnout models in the suburbs of Kansas City.

“If you win a race, you virtually never go back and analyze what you did right or wrong. You think, ‘Oh, we did everything perfectly,’ ” Kobach said. “After 2010 and 2014, we didn’t go back through and analyze every little detail. But in 2018, we did. And we looked exactly [at], ‘Okay, where should we have gotten more votes? What could we have done differently?’ The Democrats very effectively used the K-12 spending issue as a sledgehammer against Republicans, and they would have done that to any nominee.”

In Washington, Republicans didn’t want to hear it. There was a months-long campaign to nudge Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from Wichita, into the race, on the assumption that he’d lock up the primary. Among those who failed to convince Pompeo was the president himself, angry to have spent political capital on someone who didn’t win.

That left Kobach competing with a crop little-known candidates and Marshall, a physician and the congressman from the 63-county “Big First” district, who had gotten started in politics by ousting a flamboyantly conservative incumbent in a 2016 primary. Rep. Tim Huelskamp had angered party leaders and gotten kicked off the Agriculture Committee; Marshall promised to get onto the committee, and did. 

Marshall’s win was a triumph for the Republican Party’s establishment, which at the time was already investing to stop far-right candidates from winning primaries. But Marshall, who supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign, arrived in Washington with Donald Trump. It wasn’t an obvious fit at first, with Marshall telling a crowd of Republicans in 2017 that he didn’t “know how we’re going to pay” for the president’s border wall. Two years later, he supported Trump’s request for border wall money, and in the final debate last month, Marshall said he “will always support the president’s policy on immigration,” emphasizing his 100 percent record of supporting those policies.

At a Sunday night meet-and-greet in Garden City, his last before returning to D.C. for coronavirus relief negotiations, Marshall’s pitch to Republicans emphasized his relationship with Trump. He reminisced about an Oval Office meeting where the president pushed the red button on his desk, which, rather than unleashing nuclear armageddon, ordered him a Diet Coke. (“He’s obviously done that to a few congressmen.”) And he talked about working with a reelected president to replace the Affordable Care Act, in a prime position as the head of the Republican Study Committee’s health-care task force.

In an interview after the speech, Marshall stressed how well he worked with the president. Asked how well the president had handled the coronavirus outbreak, Marshall gave him an “A+,” and said his decisions had prevented a greater catastrophe.

“On January 28th, I think I was the first member of Congress to talk on the House floor about how serious this was going to be,” Marshall said. “And the president’s ban, the travel ban, I think saved hundreds of thousands of Americans lives. Maybe more. The other thing that no one’s talking about is when he saw that the CDC was failing in getting the testing set up, he went ahead and pivoted to getting the private sector set up as well.”

Kobach’s campaign stops were just as heavy on praise for the president, mixed with the argument that he could be doing even more, if only more Republicans stood by him. At times, his examples could be obscure; he told several audiences about the 2014 primary that pitted conservative legislator Chris McDaniel against then-Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, another battle for the heart of the Republican Party, but one that got little attention in Kansas. At other points, as when one Kansan asked whether there was a way for DACA recipients to get a path to citizenship, Kobach was ready with the specific, dramatic policy agenda he’d bring to the floor of the Senate to strengthen Trump’s hand.

“If we conservatives are going to give up something like that, we need something in return,” Kobach said of DACA. “That can be like finishing the wall, like ending sanctuary cities, like closing all the loopholes in our asylum, like getting rid of the visa lottery, which gives about 50,000 visas randomly to people around the world with no regard to the U.S. national interest.” In an interview, Kobach added that he supports the president’s continued effort to end the DACA program, after the Supreme Court halted that effort.

Republicans’ attacks on Kobach have not focused on his policies. Plains PAC, the vehicle for their anti-Kobach material, repeatedly emphasizes that he lost in 2018 and previews how Democrats might attack him — he had not been antiabortion at the very start of his political career, and he parted ways with a white nationalist who helped his campaign. There was some evidence that its ads had gotten through to voters, as Kobach got questions at nearly every stop asking him to refute them.

“If I’m a white nationalist, I’m not a very good one,” Kobach joked at stops in Bucklin and Larned. “My campaign manager is Jewish and my communications manager is Black.”

Kobach added that he was confident that the president, whom he continued to talk to, would stay out of the race. Trump’s silence has avoided the sort of drama that brought down Jeff Sessions in this month’s Alabama runoff; it also has avoided some of the nastiness of next week’s Senate primary in Tennessee, where a Trump-endorsed candidate has struggled against an insurgent backed by some prominent conservatives.

The result is a race that looks a lot like the Kansas GOP’s 2018 primary for governor, where the close and bitter outcome left Kobach with the nomination but not much money. Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who left that party in 2018, has raised more money than Kobach and Marshall combined. As of July 15, she had $4.2 million left to spend, while Marshall was down to $1 million and Kobach less than $150,000. In an interview, Bollier did not say who she’d prefer to run against, arguing that any Republican would have to answer for the policies that alienated Kansas two years ago.

“We’ve lived through the horrible Brownback experiment,” Bollier said. “The farmers are struggling under the power of Trump and they want to be able to have good jobs and good economics. And they want their day-to-day needs met by someone who will listen to them.”

Both of the leading Republican candidates say they’ll do the same, and that listening to Kansans means supporting the president. And messy primaries have not stopped Republicans from winning Senate races in Kansas. In 2014, retiring Sen. Pat Roberts was badly damaged by a conservative primary challenger; in 2010, a similar “establishment”-versus-conservative race was decided by single digits. 

Kobach’s closing argument is that both of those elections produced amiable Republicans who did not make waves — good enough to control the Senate, not good enough to deliver everything the president and conservatives wanted. The primary, he said, was preparing him for a full-out war against the old GOP. 

“When I do win this thing, God willing, I will be even more loud and make more noise than I would have otherwise,” Kobach said. “Okay? Because they’re going to pay for this.” 

Reading list

The long path of an investigation that could blow up before November, but isn’t likely to touch Joe Biden.

How the Tennessee Senate race went off the rails.

What we learned from the latest Biden news conference.

It’s not 1968 anymore in Arlington, Marietta or Waukesha.

A joke to get reporters sweating? A threat to the Constitution and the American way of life? Opinions vary.

How the coronavirus has vanished from the incumbent president’s ads.

Two Democrats who’ve sometimes made the party’s moderates nervous get the speaker’s support.

On the trail

DETROIT — It started in March, when Michigan state Rep. Karen Whitsett was feeling all the symptoms of a bad flu. Her physician prescribed a drug she was familiar with, as a sufferer of Lyme disease: hydroxychloroquine. After Whitsett tested positive for covid-19, she thanked the president for touting the medicine.

“It has a lot to do with the president,” Whitsett told the Detroit Free Press. “He is the only person who has the power to make it a priority.” That news quickly got to Trump, who joked that Whitsett would “be voting for me now,” and invited her to White House.

Any Republican candidate in 2020 would have wrapped up the primary with a story like that. There was one problem: Whitsett is a Democrat, in a part of Detroit where Republicans are practically invisible. On Tuesday, she’ll face a primary challenger who has scooped up national and local liberal endorsements, in large part because Whitsett became the most prominent Black Democrat in the country to praise Trump’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine.

“When she was at the White House, everyone sent that video to me and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ” said Roslyn Ogburn, a housing activist who was already running against Whitsett before the Trump news. “Then I thought she had a great opportunity to talk about our district with the president and try to get additional resources for us. But oh my God, no, she didn’t do it!”

In the weeks since that meeting, Whitsett has been censured by the local Democratic Party, filed a lawsuit against the party for doing so, dropped the lawsuit, and refused to waver for a second from her support for the president’s hydroxychloroquine advocacy. In an interview, Whitsett said that some in her party began targeting her as soon as she sided with Republicans to pass auto insurance reform, and that her moment in the spotlight — including an interview with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, who appealed for donations to her district — did a world of good.

“I’m always going to look out for the people in my district and help them by any means necessary,” Whitsett said. “I’m not here to play partisan politics. I told them I’d get auto insurance reform done, and I did. I keep my word. By being out there in the media, I was able to raise over $600,000 for my district. I was able to get meals for my district, to get enough PPE to share with five other legislators.”

Ogburn, whose campaign literature calls her the “real Democrat” in the primary, had a platform before the Trump issue came up. But the president’s praise for Whitsett unlocked a series of endorsements, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to local congressional Rep. Rashida Tlaib and the Democratic club that censured the incumbents. Labor unions that might have stuck with the incumbent — AFSCME, SEIU, the UAW — moved en masse to Ogburn.

“I don’t even go to the club’s meeting, so how do they kick somebody out of somewhere they don’t go?” Whitsett said of the local party. “That’s just one less Christmas gift I have to buy. I don’t care.” The labor un-endorsements had a more direct cost, with unions pulling financial support that had been expected to go to her campaign.

“They didn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m throwing money at you because you’re running against her,’ ” Ogburn said. “They reached out to me to see that I was a candidate who was standing with the people. I’m an environmentalist, I’m working for water rights and sustainability. Meanwhile, constituents were very angry with her. It wasn’t just siding with Trump, but filing the lawsuit, siding with him against her party.”

Black Democrats who’ve expressed any level of support for Trump have been elevated by the president, and quickly. In Georgia, Black state legislator Vernon Jones endorsed the president and, with no primary threat on the horizon, became a vocal surrogate.

Whitsett was taking no stance on the presidential race. But she thought the treatment she got from Democrats was ridiculous. And last week, she still could not understand why some people would associate a drug so strongly with Republican politics that they would question whether it worked. (Many medical experts have said there’s little evidence hydroxychloroquine is effective against covid-19, despite Trump’s touting of the drug.)

“Who cares if he endorsed it?” she asked. “If the president is standing between you and living, you think you’re going to care?” 

Ad watch

Plains PAC, “Lose.” All of this start-up PAC’s advertising makes the straightforward argument that Kris Kobach would bungle the Senate race in November. Every ad also makes the same trio of assertions: Kobach was passed over for a job in the Trump White House, he once had a white nationalist working on his campaign, and he was not always staunchly antiabortion.

Senate Leadership Fund, “Don’t Buy.” Republican ads boosting Marshall over Kobach have increasingly added a new angle: Democrats are buying commercials to stop a solid conservative from winning the election. This spot spends nearly as much time touting Marshall’s work with Trump as on his background as a doctor and veteran turned congressman. “The truth? Roger Marshall is the Republican choice, standing strong with President Trump,” a narrator says. “President Trump has called Roger Marshall a ‘great friend.’ ”

Barbara Bollier, “Different Approach.” The Kansas Democrat who will lock up her Senate nomination on Tuesday is running on familiar Democratic issues: Jobs and health care. She leads with her medical experience and then, with some TV-ready frustration, bemoans how much Washington politics involves infighting and party loyalty. “Everyone treats the other party like the enemy. I take a different approach,” she says.

Steve Watkins, “Bogus Charges.” The other heated race in Kansas is a Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Topeka into the redder southeastern part of the state. Watkins, elected narrowly in 2018, has since been charged in a voter fraud scandal. The ad makes no mention of it, instead attacking his primary foe, the state treasurer, as a political hack who would make a poor replacement for a U.S. Military Academy graduate and veteran. “I’ve lived a lifetime of service on battlefields, defending freedom,” Watkins says. “Aren’t you fed up with career politicians?” 

Poll watch

Joe Biden: 50%
Donald Trump: 41%

The keystone state has a special place in Democratic nightmares about 2016. They can tell themselves that Hillary Clinton made a unique error in largely ignoring Michigan and entirely ignoring Wisconsin. (The party spent money and sent surrogates to those states, but less of each than were devoted to states like Florida.) Pennsylvania was another story, with Clinton repeatedly campaigning there, but losing as formerly Democratic parts of the state’s northwest and northeast swung to the GOP. And at this point in 2016, Franklin & Marshall had Clinton up in Pennsylvania by 11 points.

At first blush, Biden is in the exact same position that Clinton was, with about 50/50 favorable numbers. But the pollster has changed its screening since 2016 and adjusts more for voters’ education.

Kelly Loeffler: 26% 
Doug Collins: 20%
Matt Lieberman: 14%
Raphael Warnock: 9%
Ed Tarver: 5% 
Brian Slowinski: 3%

Georgia has two Senate races this year: A traditional contest that will go to a runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent, and a jungle primary where it’s almost impossible to see a candidate getting 50 percent. Loeffler, whose Senate career began under a cloud of scandal, is winning a plurality of women and Republicans; Collins has enough support to theoretically lock Democrats out of a runoff. But this is a race where ad spending could matter. Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, has the support of national Democrats and $2.9 million in cash on hand. He’s the best-known Black candidate in the race, but gets just 17 percent of the Black vote here — less than Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. The Democrats’ bet is that a consolidated Black vote would get Warnock into the runoff, but that isn’t happening absent real campaign spending.

Candidate tracker

President Trump surprised even Republicans on Thursday, minutes after a devastating (but expected) GDP report, with a tweet continuing to raise baseless speculation about the integrity of the upcoming election on Nov. 3. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Trump wrote, later pinning that tweet to the top of his account.

Joe Biden largely ignored this, commenting instead on the economic growth numbers,. His surrogates pointed out that Biden had predicted three months ago that Trump would try to move the election date — something only Congress can do — and the president’s campaign responded at the time by calling him a “rambling” conspiracy theorist.

Veep watch

On Tuesday, Joe Biden gave his hardest deadline yet for announcing a running mate: “I’m going to have a choice in the first week in August.” That, if you are having trouble keeping track of these pandemic-era days, starts a countdown clock on Saturday and suggests we’ll know the Democratic ticket no later than Aug. 9. 

This may seem late, but Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and John McCain all took more time to pick their nominees for vice president. In the years since nominees got full control over their running mates, they have tended to announce them in the immediate run-up to their convention. Biden’s pick, in contrast, could have two weeks in the spotlight before Democrats stage — and virtually tune into — their convention in Milwaukee.

All that’s left is the pick itself, some speculation (baseless and otherwise), and dives into the records of the Democrats seen as most likely to be picked. On Wednesday, both Rep. Karen Bass of California and Rep. Val Demings of Florida participated in a much-delayed hearing with Attorney General William Barr; in the evening, Fox’s Tucker Carlson warned that Bass’s praise for the late Fidel Castro and California Sen. Kamala Harris‘s support for immigration amnesty made them dangerous.

Harris, who has continued offering stimulus ideas during Congress’s bogged-down coronavirus relief negotiations, is one of two former presidential candidates seen as potential picks. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is the other.) A series of stories have captured some worries about Harris from donors, named and unnamed, who fret that the senator’s attack on Biden’s opposition to busing in the 1970s revealed a level of ambition that could hamstring him in office. Former national security adviser Susan Rice has emerged as the antithesis of Harris, at least in these calculations; she has never run for office and she worked closely with Biden in the Obama administration. But the women being considered have no appetite for the anti-Harris chatter, publicly at least, with Bass tweeting this week that she “would never want to be labeled the ‘anti-Kamala Harris.’ ”

Dems in disarray

Democrats voted to keep a key rule that governed their 2020 primaries on Thursday, when the party’s rules committee voted unanimously to prevent unelected “superdelegates” from voting on the first ballot at the 2024 convention.

It was a minor win for allies of Bernie Sanders, who had spent nearly two years putting that rule into effect for this primary. Sanders delegates proposed a rule that would eliminate superdelegates’ power altogether in the party’s charter; it failed 141 to 29, in line with the lopsided delegate majority Biden brought to the committees after winning the nomination.

Countdown

… five days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… seven days until primaries in Tennessee
… nine days until primaries in Hawaii
… 12 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin and runoffs in Georgia
… 18 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 28 days until the Republican National Convention
… 36 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 96 days until the general election

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