WICHITA, Kan. — Polarizing conservative Kris Kobach launched a campaign Thursday for Kansas attorney general, attempting a political comeback in 2022 after losing nationally watched races for governor and U.S. Senate.
Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state, built his political brand by advocating restrictive immigration policies and tough voter identification laws, including a prove-your-citizenship requirement for Kansas voters struck down by a federal appeals court last year. He also was the first prominent Kansas elected official to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016 and was vice chair of a short-lived Trump commission on voter fraud.
He is grounding his latest campaign in promises to aggressively attack President Joe Biden's policies in court if elected. But he faces doubts among fellow Republicans about his electability, just as he did in 2020. He lost the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate that year to Roger Marshall after losing the 2018 governor's race to Democrat Laura Kelly.
Kobach also said past work as a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and with the U.S. Justice Department means the state attorney general's office "suits me ideally." The incumbent, Republican Derek Schmidt, is running for governor in 2022.
"Far and away the No. 1 reason why I am running is to stand between an overreaching Biden administration with unconstitutional and illegal executive orders and the people of Kansas," Kobach said in kicking off his campaign in Wichita, the state's largest city.
But the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, influential with Republicans, quickly expressed doubts about Kobach's legal skills.
Kansas could be on the hook for $3.3 million in legal fees after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the appeals court ruling against the proof-of-citizenship law. During the lawsuit against the law, a federal magistrate accused Kobach of misleading the court and fined him $1,000, and later, a federal judge ordered him to complete six extra hours of legal education.
Kansas Chamber President and CEO Alan Cobb said businesses question whether Kobach could represent them and individuals effectively in court as attorney general.
"Kobach's candidacy puts too much at risk," Cobb said in a statement.
Kobach said Thursday that lower court rulings on the proof-of-citizenship law depended on which judges reviewed the case and that he's confident the U.S. Supreme Court would have upheld the law had it taken the case.
But his take-no-prisoners political style alienated moderate Republicans and independent voters in his 2018 race for governor and pushed some GOP conservatives to back Marshall in 2020.
"As Republicans, we want to win," said Kelly Arnold, a former state GOP chairman. "He has his work cut out for him to try to rally a support base."
Kobach's first move as a candidate for attorney general showed that he's still likely to polarize voters. He appointed a western Kansas GOP activist, Laura Tawater, as his campaign treasurer late Wednesday night.
She has faced criticism because she was in Washington on Jan. 6, the day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Tawater posted pictures from Washington on Facebook and said on Jan. 7 that she would miss "so many freedom-loving Patriots."
She said in a text message that she attended the rally but didn't go to the Capitol afterward because she had to catch a flight. The U.S. House's second impeachment of Trump charged him with inciting the failed insurrection.
"Just about any Republican who's interested in politics would attend a rally where the president was speaking if he or she could be there," Kobach said. "She didn't go to the Capitol. She just went to the rally beforehand, and I think that's perfectly fine."
Several county prosecutors and at least two legislators also have been mentioned as potential Republican candidates for attorney general, but none has taken any formal steps to launch a campaign. No Democratic candidates have emerged, either.
University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said Kobach has "a very dedicated core group of supporters" that could help him win a crowded primary. That happened in 2018, but not in 2020, when Marshall prevailed in an 11-person field by 14 percentage points.
"If he faces a similar dynamic, where the Republican establishment really mobilizes against him, that may not work out well for him," Miller said.
Republicans have held the attorney general's office for 39 of the past 50 years, a testament to their general strength in down-ballot races in a GOP-leaning state.
"So some Republicans are going to be unhappy that 'Hey, this could be an easy victory but if Kobach gets the nomination, now it is a tossup," said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist.
Hanna reported from Topeka, Kansas, and Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna