Kris Kobach’s Loss Shows Immigration Alone Is Not Enough
On Tuesday night, a lightning rod Kansas politician suffered another setback.
It was a peculiar concentration for a speech to the 2004 Republican National Convention.
In a year dominated by the Iraq War and a famous mania over Islamic extremism, Congressional candidate Kris Kobach chose to contort the George W. Bush agenda into his own. Nevermind that months prior Bush 43 had pledged a new immigration policy that stressed a need to be “more compassionate,” one that served the American economy and reflected his idea of the American dream, while setting in motion a plan for temporary work permits for eight million. Budding politician Kobach imputed an ulterior rationale for re-electing the president: it was actually the best chance to close the border.
In 2020, former President Bush will release, “Out Of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants,” but sixteen years ago that didn’t stop Kobach from making the case that Bush was still the most honest crack at instituting a hard line. The Harvard, Oxford and Yale alumnus had his own spin on the “War on Terror.” Kobach told the convention in New York that he would “close the door to terrorists who abuse America’s open borders.” As a White House Fellow under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, Kobach said he “saw how effective the National Guard can be at protecting our borders against terrorist infiltration.” The votes of his opponent, then-Rep. Dennis Moore, placed Americans “at risk,” he said.
Kobach lost that race, a defeat for national Republicans in a district that years later speedily trended conservative. By most accounts, it was the beginning of Kobach’s umeboshi-sour relationship with the GOP establishment, despite his vaunted credentials, obvious intelligence and looks for a politician “out of central casting,” as Donald Trump might say. Moore—a “Blue Dog” liberal who had been the subject of a documentary seen in Democratic circles as a guide to eking out victories in red states—carried on for three more terms, after dispatching with Kobach by double digits. In the year that Thomas Frank published “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” the answer for liberal America was: at least not Kris Kobach.
I emailed Frank this week after Kobach’s latest electoral setback—this time for the Senate, after a losing bid for governor in 2018—to ask what he made of Kobach’s defeat, in a Republican primary, no less. “It’s a good question why the local R’s dislike him so much,” Frank told me. “I truly don’t know.” In 2012, Frank (who otherwise does not approve of Kobach) wrote for Harper’s magazine: “Kobach, it must be said, is not the right-wing Neanderthal that many journalists like to imagine. He is polite, highly educated, polished, and smart. I knew him slightly back in the early 1980s, when we were both high school debaters.” Frank, at that time, visited Kobach in his offices—when he served as Kansas secretary of state, the only elected position Kobach, now 54, has ever held. Frank noted that Kobach respected a good doomed crusade, as he sported a bust of Alf Landon, the once-Kansas governor and Republican official who was demolished by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election.
The rationale for Kobach running this year was clear, if often misunderstood and derided. When he entered the Senate race last year, it was unknown if 2020 would be a Democratic wave year, as the 2018 midterms had been long poised to be (as is increasingly the custom for parties that hold the White House). In addition, governor’s races are decidedly different than Senate races—liberal strongholds Maryland and Massachusetts have Republican executives, for example. Candidates are frequently aided by an issue set that is somewhat stripped of the Washington rancor and national culture war.
But it is unlikely that Larry Hogan (Maryland) or Charlie Baker (Massachusetts), popular as they are, could win election to the upper chamber, with the country’s spotlight on the race and the might of the national Democratic Party against them. Contra Hogan and Baker, such a dynamic would have worked in Kobach’s favor, despoiling the environment for the Democratic opponent, Barbara Bollier. So, the thinking went, even if President Trump lost the election, it was unlikely Republicans would drop Kansas, ergo Kobach—in the worst case—could be carried into Washington on Trump’s coattails.
But the theory won’t be tested. The Senate primary wasn’t particularly close, with the former Jayhawk secretary of state, at 26 percent of the vote, finishing closer to third place (Bob Hamilton) than the winner, Congressman Roger Marshall. Kobach in his concession speech this week said he had faced a “very steep, uphill struggle” amidst a barrage of intraparty invective that could be traced back to the Senate’s wily majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
For activists in the nationalist Right, including Kobach’s passionate champion, author Ann Coulter, the dispatching of Kobach was another setback. Coulter has famously soured on Trump himself, but this summer has also seen the savaging of Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. Attorney General who failed to win back his Senate seat as a bitter White House brought the hammer down on him. Trump did not intervene against Kobach—who like Sessions he was once more fond of—to the chagrin of a nervous McConnell.
But McConnell’s maneuvers lack a certain clarity. The Kentucky senator, a corporate Republican par excellence, has an uneasy relationship with the forty-fifth president and sports an entourage that is plainly counting down the days until they can eventually be rid of Trump. However, unlike in the case of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump’s relationship with McConnell has not utterly broken down. The president evidently views the septuagenarian tactician as a master of his domain, with McConnell conceding Trump’s continued political success as, of course, spectacular news for the Senate majority Republicans first won in 2014.
There is some speculation that McConnell, if his party held the upper chamber, might privately prefer working with a President Biden in the curtain call of his career. The duo gets along, with Biden notoriously gaffing in 2013 that he wanted McConnell re-elected. “Mitch, we want to see you come back,” the future Democratic standard-bearer said of his party’s most trenchant tormentor. For McConnell, if Republicans hold the upper chamber, he will get the opportunity to substantially moderate the composition of Biden’s potentially radical cabinet, after four years of installing conservatives on the federal bench and shepherding through landmark tax reform. But it’s no easy trick, and so one McConnell can hardly bank on. If Biden is elected, it’s likely the Democrats will swallow whole McConnell’s majority, as well.
Hence, there was McConnell’s obsession with thwarting Kobach. For reformers of the Republican Party who, on policy, want the party to look more like the party of Trump than the party of Bush—there are some hard lessons. The major development is the clear limitation of candidates who are defined exclusively as immigration hardliners. In addition to making the politician vulnerable to damaging synopses of his character, it appears a singular border-hawk mantra doesn’t sell like it used to, in a rapidly diversifying and race-preoccupied country. Powerful and disciplined elaboration on other items Trump brought to fore—whether it be trade nationalism or foreign policy restraint or the true challenge of China—are now required of political aspirants in this space.
As one top conservative told me, a clear effect of the dual defeat of Kobach and Sessions, beyond depriving immigration hawks of sentinels in the Senate, will be to (relatively) moderate the likely immigration policy of the 2024 Republican primary. Canny figures like Sens. Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley, or even Fox host Tucker Carlson, all of whom have a wide-ranging set of policy prerogatives, are likely to occupy the space Mitt Romney did in 2012 and Trump did in 2016, as the party’s resident immigration hardliners. In a case of either a Kobach bid for the presidency (quite plausible if he had won Tuesday) or the return to Washington of the godfather of immigration restriction (Sessions), you would have assuredly seen a more fire-breathing Republican Party.