How Kobach could win Kansas

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE david.von­drehle@wash­post.com

Years of cov­er­ing pol­i­tics makes one ap­pre­ci­ate that some vot­ers ac­tu­ally like the sort of pho­ny­baloney can­di­date who — de­spite hav­ing served ex­actly zero days in the mil­i­tary — would ride in pa­rades aboard a flag-painted Jeep with a fake ma­chine gun mounted on the back. Maybe these vot­ers feel a surge of pa­tri­o­tism at the sight of a grown man play­ing soldier with a toy gun, but more likely they just en­joy the way it drives the lib­er­als crazy.

The prob­lem for Kris Kobach, the er­satz G.I. Joe run­ning for gov­er­nor of Kansas, is that the number charmed by such hooey rarely ap­proaches 50 per­cent.

Nor is the Jeep the only fac­tor cap­ping Kobach’s po­ten­tial share of Tues­day’s vote. Though he is the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee in a heav­ily Repub­li­can state, many Repub­li­cans want noth­ing to do with him. Two former gov­er­nors and a pair of former U.S. sen­a­tors are among the long list of GOP stal­warts who have en­dorsed Demo­crat Laura Kelly, a vet­eran state sen­a­tor.

Then there’s Kobach’s dis­as­trous per­for­mance in fed­eral court this year, where the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union shred­ded his claims of wide­spread voter fraud in Kansas and the judge tartly ad­mon­ished the former law pro­fes­sor to learn ba­sic rules of pro­ce­dure.

And there’s his mem­ber­ship on the ad­vi­sory board of a sham char­ity that raised at least $1 mil­lion in the guise of help­ing vet­er­ans but kept more than 94 per­cent of the dough for ex­penses. Kobach’s name and pho­to­graph re­mained on the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s web­site when I checked on Nov. 1 — nearly nine months af­ter the Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau blew the whis­tle on the scam.

But alien­at­ing the ma­jor­ity doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily spell death for a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign — not if the race has a strong third can­di­date. Polls that show Kobach and Kelly neck and neck in the home stretch also find in­de­pen­dent businessman Greg Or­man draw­ing enough sup­port to be a de­ci­sive fac­tor, though he’s too far back to win.

Ac­tu­ally, Or­man is one of three men who will be de­ci­sive in this race, and none of them is named Kobach.

The first is Don­ald J. Trump, of course. He car­ried the Sun­flower State by close to a quar­ter of a mil­lion votes, and he re­mains rel­a­tively pop­u­lar de­spite his tar­iffs and his Twit­ter feed. The pres­i­dent’s strong en­dorse­ment of Kobach — Trump’s study-buddy in the art of im­mi­gra­tion dem­a­goguery — was likely the dif­fer­ence in the sec­re­tary of state’s nar­row pri­mary win over in­cum­bent Gov. Jeff Colyer. But there are signs that anti-Trump en­ergy is high in the sub­urbs of Kansas City and Wi­chita, where strong turnout against the provo­ca­teur in chief could tip the race to Kelly.

Low-key and com­mon-sen­si­cal, Kelly han­dles the volatile topic of Trump with great care. She saves her fire for an­other loom­ing in­flu­ence: former gov­er­nor Sam Brown­back. Swept into of­fice by the con­ser­va­tive back­lash of 2010, Brown­back flopped as an ex­ec­u­tive. The big tax cut he cham­pi­oned failed to spark in­vest­ment, cre­ate jobs or pay for it­self as promised. Brown­back’s fel­low Repub­li­cans were forced to clean up the fi­asco with a tax hike last year, while the chas­tened gov­er­nor seized Trump’s of­fer of a fed­eral ap­point­ment to make his es­cape from Topeka.

Kobach, unfazed, prom­ises an­other big tax cut if he’s elected. Kelly warns that the dam­age from the last go-round — in­ad­e­quate school fund­ing, a fos­ter­care sys­tem in cri­sis, un­paid pen­sion obli­ga­tions and so on — will take years to re­pair. Tues­day’s re­sults will tell us whether the mem­ory of Brown­back’s de­ba­cle re­mains and whether Kansans learn from ex­pe­ri­ence.

But then there’s Or­man, a wealthy en­trepreneur and in­vestor who made a bun­dle in the en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency busi­ness. The son of a Repub­li­can fur­ni­ture­store owner and a lib­eral Demo­cratic mom, Or­man is con­vinced that the time has come for in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates to break the par­ti­san “stran­gle­hold” on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Things looked promis­ing for Mr. None-of-the-above when he ran for Se­nate in 2014. He caught Repub­li­can Sen. Pat Roberts doz­ing. When Or­man shot up in the polls, state Democrats dropped out of the race to give Or­man a clear shot. Only a late cav­alry charge led by Bob Dole him­self, the aged Repub­li­can hero from tiny Rus­sell, Kan., saved Roberts’s seat.

Now Or­man’s en­tire project is in doubt. Even an in­de­pen­dent needs friends, but hav­ing struck at the GOP with­out win­ning, Or­man is mak­ing en­e­mies among the Democrats, who fear his vain cam­paign will let Kobach slip into of­fice. Their hope that Or­man’s friends could per­suade him to re­pay the fa­vor of 2014 by step­ping aside for Kelly ap­peared to be dashed on Oct. 30, when Or­man’s cam­paign trea­surer quit wait­ing on the can­di­date and threw his sup­port to the Demo­crat.

The Sage of Em­po­ria, Wil­liam Allen White, fa­mously asked, “What’s the mat­ter with Kansas?” The an­swer he’d get this year could be that the joker in the Jeep ac­tu­ally be­comes gov­er­nor.

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