TOPEKA, Kan. — One of Republican Kris Kobach's main opponents said Wednesday that he is not qualified to serve as Kansas governor because of his tough stance against illegal immigration and because he promises to pursue state policies meant to discourage it.
Independent candidate Greg Orman, a Kansas City-area businessman, said Kobach's stance on immigration shows that the Republican does not understand agriculture or how it depends heavily on immigrant labor. Orman made his comment during perhaps the sharpest exchange for the major candidates' first forum of the fall campaign at a hotel in a Kansas City suburb.
Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, has made illegal immigration a key issue in his campaign after more than a decade of advocating action by states and local communities. He was an early backer of President Donald Trump, advising both his 2016 campaign and the White House on immigration and homeland security issues.
"I almost think the idea, Kris, that you think that we need to rid of all immigrants in Kansas — all illegal immigrants in Kansas — just disqualifies you to be governor," Orman said. "It's clearly a red meat issue for your base, but ultimately, it just demonstrates you don't understand how the ag economy works."
Both Orman and Kelly are vying for votes from GOP moderates who dislike Kobach's conservative politics, including his longstanding embrace of tough immigration policies. They have emphasized other issues, such as support for public schools for Kelly and promoting economic growth for Orman.
Both Orman and Kelly said illegal immigration is a federal issue requiring comprehensive reforms to immigration laws from Washington — echoing statements made in the past from major Kansas business and agriculture groups.
Kobach defeated Gov. Jeff Colyer in the Republican primary last month, and Orman picked up the endorsement of Colyer's ex-campaign chairman, a former Kansas Farm Bureau president. Orman said aggressive attempts to deport illegal immigrants would hurt rural Kansas, particularly dairy and meatpacking businesses.
But Kobach brushed off the criticism and said states should discourage illegal immigrants from settling within their borders. He has promised that if he is elected governor, he will issue an executive order requiring state agencies and their contractors to use the e-Verify system to check workers' legal status, something he's done with his own office.
He also has promised to pursue legislation that would cut off state funding to cities and counties that restrict law enforcement cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
Kobach said Orman is suggesting that someone isn't qualified for governor for wanting to "have the illegal population leave the state and open up jobs for Kansans" is "180-degrees wrong."
"I'd be the first governor who's actually tried to do something about the problem," Kobach said. "We have to look out for the American worker."
Kobach also has promised to seek the repeal of a 2004 law that helps young people living in Kansas illegally to go to state colleges by allowing them to pay the lower tuition rates reserved for legal state residents. Kobach contends the law subsidizes the educations of illegal immigrants, to the detriment of taxpayers.
Like other supporters, Kelly said the law makes higher education affordable to young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents after they've made Kansans their home for years.
"I have voted for that, and I'll vote for it again, if I need to," Kelly said. "Those kids would be dropping out of college because they couldn't afford it."