Kris Kobach, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary politics, beat incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer in the August 14 Republican primary in Kansas. To call the race close would ignore exactly what the photo-finish looked like: Kobach’s victory rested on 110 votes. Trump’s endorsement of Kobach sure helped, and was the least he could do after Kobach’s rabid work on immigration and voter identification laws propped up Trump’s own campaign mythology.
Looking at Kobach’s career makes it appear as though he was on the inside of the GOP strategy at least a decade before his election, and his victory was almost assured because of the moves he made over the year to reshape Kansas’s electorate.
Kobach has become the perfect image of the white nationalist Trojan horse in GOP-controlled parts of the country. He is a country boy with little national spotlight, and thus, the best hope for a right-wing populist wave in Trump’s base.
Kobach started modestly enough in a 1999 city council race in Overland Park, where his brand of hyper-partisanship and race-baiting had yet to be properly cultivated. After a failed state senatorial bid in 2000, it was in 2004, when running for Congress, that Kobach put up a noteworthy showing before losing to Dennis Moore, the incumbent for the 3rd District who kept up support in Kansas as a moderate Democratic proponent of gun control.
In 2009, Kobach made his announcement to run for Kansas secretary of state, this time finally beating a Democratic incumbent to take the seat. He defined his conservative credentials by the issues that would come to dominant his political profile, specifically immigration and voting rights, and the baiting of white Kansas voters into fits of populist anger.
Building the Wall
Immigration has always been a way to stir up support from the rural Republican base, and this was a pattern Kobach threw his entire hand behind. In 2001, George W. Bush awarded Kobach a White House fellowship so that he could work as an attorney with then Attorney General John Ashcroft. In the wake of 9/11, Kobach helped to build an immigrant database of travelers from 25 majority-Muslim countries in Ashcroft’s Justice Department, a move which many have noted was more comprehensive than the Muslim Ban that Trump built his campaign on enacting.
Kobach really made a name for himself working on Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, often called the “show-me-your-papers” law. This state legislation enabled law enforcement to request immigration documents from anyone for any reason, which Arizonans rightfully concluded would lead to racial profiling and the systematic targeting of non-white communities.
As a law professor, Kobach helped to write the immigration legislation at the behest of Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, who had already caused controversies because of Pearce’s relationship with National Socialist Movement neo-Nazi J.T. Ready. The movement in Arizona to target immigration, which pushed the legislation like Proposition 200 in 2004, was deeply embedded with white nationalists, including having white separatist and American Freedom Party Vice Presidential candidate Virginia Abernathy as their spokesperson.
Since his brand was riding high, Kobach took his show to Alabama, where he could turn his immigration act into an elaborate string of racist dog whistles. Alabama’s House Bill 56 allowed “reasonable suspicion” to force a resident to prove citizenship, and barred undocumented people from receiving public benefits, attending public colleges and ramped up prosecution for anyone found to be “harboring” undocumented people. It also forced public schools to deliver information about how many undocumented minors they were teaching. Much of the bill ended up blocked in the courts or voluntarily withdrawn after public outcry.
As part of his multi-state tour, Kobach began taking on contracts from regional municipalities attempting to defend their own anti-immigrant legislations. According to a report put out by the Center for American Progress, Kobach raked in a fortune of $6.6 million from clients like Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and Riverside, New Jersey, hiring him to defend far-right measures to disenfranchise undocumented residents. He went as far as to help put forward two pieces of legislation from state legislators intended to undermine the 14th Amendment by stripping citizenship from US-born children of undocumented parents.
Kobach’s focus on immigration, the central electoral issue that binds white nationalists to contemporary political controversies, is something that could easily bump up against the world of white supremacist organizations. While GOP officials have often tried to dance around the fact that they have shared interests with the racist far right on immigration, Kobach’s brand is the same that gave Trump’s populism a “strong man” appeal. Moreover, Kobach has simply ignored the growing relationship with white nationalists Kobach himself had fostered, choosing to treat it as a non-issue as the names piled up.
Kobach’s White Allies
It was only natural that Kobach would take a position with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), one of the most innocuously named organizations with a white nationalist legacy of racial arson. FAIR, which is one of the most-cited immigration organizations in the US media, is known as a part of the larger Tanton Network, a collection of far-right organizations started by white nationalist doctor John Tanton. FAIR has been known for the white supremacist views of its staff members, pushing hardline immigration policies that have racial overtones, and receiving more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, a white nationalist research endowment that has funded racist publications for almost 100 years. Tanton was himself a confidant of people like American Renaissance founder and “race realist” Jared Taylor, former Ku Klux Klan attorney Sam Dickson and paleoconservative-turned-racialist Sam Francis. Tanton even had world famous Holocaust denier David Irving as an overnight guest.
Despite FAIR being identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Kobach became the legal counsel for the group’s legal defense department, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, in 2004. Kobach’s work challenging regional immigration statutes was through FAIR, including his 2008 challenge to the California University system’s application of in-state tuition to state residents who are undocumented. He didn’t leave this post until 2018, likely to focus on the governor’s race.
FAIR has done incredibly successful work in infiltrating GOP Party functionaries and the highest levels of the Trump administration, with Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and Lou Barletta also having connections to FAIR, not to mention a slew of conservative law and opinion makers. This makes sense, as FAIR spent almost $1 million on “government relations” in 2015. This is almost double what it spent on the same between 2000 and 2009, as indicated in tax documents.
NumbersUSA, another organization in the Tanton Network, was created in the midst of ongoing flirtation between parts of the environmental and anti-immigrant movements sharing common cause in confronting “overpopulation.” With a membership rounding 447,000 and a huge pulpit for projecting a stream of immigration reduction talking points, it has joined FAIR in growing the platform for white nationalist talking points in increasingly common conservative jargon.
During Kobach’s lucrative tenure in private practice, he represented US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in a 2012 lawsuit funded by NumbersUSA attacking, among other things, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). He later claimed DACA cost US jobs, dropped the national gross domestic product and that DACA recipients were “net takers” from the government — all claims that were debunked by fact-checkers. Kobach has continued his relationship with the Tanton Network, even being listed as an author for the network’s Center for Immigration Studies.
Kobach went a step further when he presented to the conference for The Social Contract Press, whose publishing brand is most known for its lineup of white nationalists and Holocaust deniers. The journal is known for continuing to use “overpopulation” fears as a gateway to talking about immigration restriction from the most extreme of angles, hoping to have its racial politics ignored in the public press in the same way that FAIR and NumbersUSA’s perspective has. Kobach, for his part, stood proudly when accused of speaking to a white nationalist conference, saying they were simply “a think tank for pro-enforcement immigration policies.”
Kobach’s single-minded focus did not appear out of the ether, and his relationship with Samuel Huntington when Kobach was an undergrad at Harvard seems like the match’s spark. Though a generally respected political theorist in his earlier career, by the time Kobach was warming up to him, Huntington was starting to defend apartheid and finally wrote the anti-immigrant book, Who Are We?, arguing Latinx people are responsible for the cultural erasure of North American whites. It should be no surprise that Huntington has continued to be an inspiration to the “alt-right.”
In August, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Kobach was employing Kurtis Engel, Collin Gustin and Michael Pyles, all members of the American Heritage Initiative, an offshoot of the white nationalist fraternal organization Identity Evropa. Each man received anywhere from $1,250 to $3,100 from Kobach’s gubernatorial campaign, working as part of the campaign’s ground game. Identity Evropa has been on the front lines of getting young, college-aged men involved in the “alt-right,” basing the group’s structure on the “identitarian” movement in Europe. This news came shortly after Kobach got an endorsement from Audacious Epigone, another identitarian organization.
The anti-Islamic focus of much of the identitarian movement seems to have found common cause in Kobach, who has supported policies cited as Islamophobic, such as President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. In March 2017, Kobach met with Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, who works with ACT for America, one of the largest anti-Muslim organizations in the US, known for its hyperbolic public rallies against what it sees as the upcoming implementation of Sharia law across the country.
Sabaditsch-Wolff already had a high profile, even for ACT for America, after she was convicted of hate speech in Austria. In her meeting with Kobach, she branded refugees as “rapists” and “criminals” and referred to conspiracy theories about their migration.
Voter ID or Voter Suppression?
Kobach really got pushed into the national spotlight with his focus on voter ID laws, which experts generally say suppress non-white votes rather than solve a voter fraud problem a majority of reports and studies reveal as a non-issue. While advocates of forced identification-checking at polling locations claim voter ID laws are a security measure to ensure “one person, one vote,” opponents have noted that these laws have the ability to disproportionately knock poor people of color off the rolls. This can then help usher in conservative majorities in areas swung to the left by voters who have felt historical marginalization, effectively undoing voter-rights victories from the civil rights movement.
In Kansas, Kobach began pushing the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act (SAFE Act), which became law in 2011. The SAFE Act forced new Kansas voters to show proof of citizenship when registering, required photo identification at polling stations, and required ID and signature verification for mail-in ballots. Records show that there has only been one prosecution of voter fraud in Kansas involving a non-citizen under Kobach’s watch, yet, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 35,000 people were barred from voting as a result of Kobach’s work. In the Kansas Republican 2018 gubernatorial primary, Kobach beat Governor Colyer by a mere 110 votes, and with a large portion of the suspected 35,000 suppressed votes being demographics historically opposed to Kobach, that could have been what had determined his success.
In June, Chief District Judge Julie A. Robinson ruled against Kobach’s 2013 implementation of voter ID laws, showing that Kobach’s claim of “significant” undocumented immigrant voting had no basis and ordering him to take a law class. The 118-page ruling indicated that Kobach’s decisions violated the National Voter Registration Act and the 14th Amendment. The ruling disallowed the proof of citizenship requirement, which presumably loosened restrictions on voting during the primary and onward.
Kobach secured the ability to prosecute voter fraud cases in Kansas in 2015, which came after his years of campaigning on the issue and claims that he found 100 verifiable instances of voter fraud. While as of February 7, 2017, he had seen a total of six convictions under his ability to prosecute, none of those cases would have been stopped by the voter ID laws he had been pushing. Many critics have pointed out that these convictions were largely because of voter oversight, and that the individuals targeted could have been for political or demographic reasons.
Kobach has staked much of his voter ID efforts on claims of massive voter fraud, such as the disproven claim that 18,000 undocumented people were voting in Kansas. After Trump’s election, Kobach suggested that 3.2 million undocumented people were illegally voting, yet the study he cited has been widely discredited. In September 2017, Kobach went further, claiming that illegal voter fraud influenced both the New Hampshire senatorial and presidential races yet, again, the evidence would not back this up.
What brought Kobach’s voter ID activism to the public stage was his appointment to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity by President Trump, where he would be in charge of both approaching possible voter fraud as well as claims of voter suppression. This was a unique position for a politician long accused of extending voter suppression to his home state. The commission was established to support Trump’s claim that between 3 and 5 million “illegal voters” participated in the 2016 election, yet this spurious claim was never supported.
The commission’s attempt to gain personal voter data was met with lawsuits and 15 states refusing to hand it over. While Kobach has moved on from the Trump administration’s voter ID efforts, this issue, both as a method of voter restriction and of strategic rhetoric toward his base, is foundational in his bid for Kansas’s executive branch.
For now, Kobach is the front-runner in the governor’s race, with Kansas positioned as a deep red state where Republicans almost doubled the Democrats in the primaries. This means that despite Kobach’s controversial record, his white nationalist connections and penchant for conspiratorial ravings, he will likely take the seat. This is not an inevitability, but shows the dramatic effect that voter suppression can have, especially when given cover by populist racial resentment that allows Kobach to target primarily immigrants of color.
The suppression of voters has become a defining frame for understanding the 2018 midterm elections following the lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the dramatic voter roll changing in states like North Dakota. Voter suppression has combined immigration issues, a rabid motivator for the Trump’s base, and Kobach’s career rides at the intersection of these two issues.
While a dramatic figure, Kobach’s successful change to the electorate may be a model for the GOP to combat their disfavor in the US demographic shifts and to find a way to ride the politics of white anger into continued relevance despite what voters want.