How Kris Kobach Built a National Profile


Mr. Kobach has advised President Trump and sought the spotlight on issues of immigration and voting fraud. His political career began in 1999 on a suburban City Council.

Kris Kobach spoke with supporters at a rally in Manhattan, Kan., last week.CreditBarrett Emke for The New York Times

Long before he was a conservative folk hero with the support of the president, and long before his strident views on immigration and voter fraud made him a boogeyman to liberals, Kris W. Kobach was an ambitious young Kansan looking for a job in municipal government.

But a political career that began in 1999 with election to the Overland Park City Council — where Mr. Kobach debated the less-than-partisan rudiments of traffic lights, crosswalks and parking lots — quickly pivoted to the more contentious questions of who should be allowed to enter the country and how election systems should be managed.

Mr. Kobach, now the Kansas secretary of state, enters the Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday with a far greater national profile — and far more political baggage — than his chief opponent, Gov. Jeff Colyer. (Governor Colyer ascended to his position earlier this year after serving seven years as lieutenant governor to Sam Brownback, who resigned to become an ambassador.)

The primary is being watched far beyond Kansas, both by hard-right Republicans who see Mr. Kobach as a rising political star and by civil libertarians who have clashed with him for years. On Monday, President Trump announced on Twitter that he was endorsing Mr. Kobach, whom he called a “fantastic guy who loves his State and our Country” and is “Strong on Crime, Border & Military.” Democrats believe they have a chance of beating Mr. Kobach in November if he is nominated.

Here’s a closer look at Mr. Kobach’s ascent from a suburban city councilman to a polarizing political crusader believed to have presidential ambitions.

2001: He does a stint in the Bush administration

Mr. Kobach, a law professor with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford, went to work in President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001. He grew close to Attorney General John Ashcroft and served for a time as his adviser on immigration law and border security.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Kobach took part in the creation of a database that tracked visitors and immigrants from 25 countries, many of them largely Muslim. President Barack Obama dismantled that system, which had not been officially in use since 2011, in the days before he left office.

Kris Kobach, a Trump ally, holds hard-line positions on immigration and voting rights. Should he win the Republican primary for governor on Tuesday over the incumbent, Gov. Jeff Colyer, many Democrats think their nominee stands a chance of winning in the general election.Published OnCreditImage by Barrett Emke for The New York Times

Mid-2000s: He has an eye for the spotlight

Executive branch credentials in hand, Mr. Kobach returned home and in 2004 won the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in the Kansas City suburbs. He lost by 11 percentage points in the general election to the Democratic incumbent.

Undeterred by that defeat, Mr. Kobach spent the next several years burnishing his profile. He served as chairman of the Kansas Republican Party and made headlines by traveling the country and proselytizing about the dangers of illegal immigration.

Starting around 2007, Mr. Kobach represented the city of Hazleton, Pa., in a lawsuit challenging city ordinances that punished landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and employers who gave them jobs. Mr. Kobach, who also represented other towns in similar cases, argued that the restrictions were a rational response to crime and gang activity in Hazleton that city officials claimed had ties to illegal immigration. (The mayor of Hazleton at the time, Lou Barletta, is now a Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania.)

Mr. Kobach also helped officials in Arizona write legislation that allowed police officers to stop people and demand proof of citizenship, which critics said enshrined racial profiling in the law. Mr. Kobach defended the measure as “very necessary,” describing Arizona as “ground zero of illegal immigration.” (The law was challenged but ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.)

A fight against voter fraud, but little to show for it

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CreditJohn Hanna/Associated Press

Back in Kansas, Mr. Kobach ran for secretary of state in 2010 warning of widespread voter fraud and efforts to corrupt the electoral process. He won.

Mr. Kobach quickly transformed what had been a low-profile state office into a political force, drafting a voter I.D. bill that became law and persuading legislators to give him prosecutorial powers for voting crimes. Though he identified a handful of instances of illegal voting, Mr. Kobach failed to prove his theory that large numbers of noncitizens were infiltrating elections. Election experts agree that voter fraud is extremely rare.

Mr. Kobach also defended a provision in the bill that required people to show proof of citizenship to register to vote, which a federal district judge struck down in June. The judge, Julie A. Robinson, rejected Mr. Kobach’s claim that the small number of voter fraud cases he had found were the “tip of the iceberg.”

Read more about Tuesday’s voting

People in Ohio, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington will head to the polls on Aug. 7

Mitch Smith covers the Midwest and the Great Plains. Since joining The Times in 2014, he has written extensively about urban violence, oil pipelines, state-level politics and the national debate over police tactics. He is based in Chicago.  @mitchksmith



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