TOPEKA, Kan. — The evolution of the Kansas Republican Party mirrors that of the national party, a rightward shift from the moderation of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the mainstream conservatism of Bob Dole to the small-government absolutism of former Gov. Sam Brownback and Wichita-based Koch Industries.Now the party appears to be shifting once more: toward…
TOPEKA, Kan. — The evolution of the Kansas Republican Party mirrors that of the national party, a rightward shift from the moderation of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the mainstream conservatism of Bob Dole to the small-government absolutism of former Gov. Sam Brownback and Wichita-based Koch Industries.
Now the party appears to be shifting once more: toward the hard-line nationalism of President Trump. And that has delighted Democrats who see an opening to make significant gains in a conservative-leaning state.
A crucial moment will come in Tuesday’s primary election when Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach — a Trump ally who has become a national lightning rod for his controversial views on immigration and voting rights — could snatch the Republican nomination for governor from the incumbent, Gov. Jeff Colyer.
A Kobach candidacy could have profound political implications for both local and national Democrats. Not only could they take back a Great Plains state governorship — winning veto power in the next round of redistricting — but they could also pick up a pair of House seats, making Kansas as pivotal to the battle for control of the House as more traditional, and more liberal, battleground states.
state and local immigration restrictions and became the public face of Mr. Trump’s much-criticized effort to prove there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. In an interview, he volunteered that cracking down on migration would be among his top priorities as governor, and he made no effort to deny that he may be interested in a future presidential bid.
Sitting in his state office with a view of Kansas’ imposing capitol, and a Trumpian array of flattering magazine and newspaper clippings on his lobby wall, Mr. Kobach simply smiled broadly earlier this week when asked whether the president may offer his blessing in the primary. But he did allow that he had talked to Mr. Trump the day before and that the president was aware of his strength in the polls.
The nomination of the polarizing Mr. Kobach, while pleasing to his party’s most conservative core, would energize liberals and moderates in the two House districts up for grabs.
Paul Davis, the likely Democratic nominee in one open House district, a liberal enclave encompassing Topeka and Lawrence, said a Kobach nomination could turbocharge their turnout efforts. “For Democrats here, Kobach is seen as an even bigger lightning rod than Brownback,” Mr. Davis said.
In an interview, Mr. Colyer, the current governor, warned that nominating “Kris would bring a lot of risk” because of his unpopularity with the general electorate, citing polls that show Mr. Kobach behind the potential Democratic nominee while trumpeting his own “very broad appeal.” And, without prompting, he cited the importance of protecting the two House seats.
But Mr. Kobach argued that midterm elections are determined by which candidate can most effectively motivate the ideological base of the party, and he said that was him.
“Colyer can’t motivate anybody to turn out,” said Mr. Kobach. “That’s not his forte.”
The intraparty clash here illustrates the divisions between those Republican Party leaders who may have been more comfortable in the pre-Trump era — such as Mr. Colyer, a well-to-do and mild-mannered plastic surgeon — and those suited for the incendiary and racially-tinged politics of the moment, like the hard-charging Mr. Kobach.
But Kansas Republicans have been practicing fratricide long before Mr. Trump descended an escalator at Trump Tower to declare his candidacy. The moderate-versus-conservative split, once rooted in a divide over abortion rights, has allowed Democrats to win the governorship over the years even as the state’s voters have sent an unbroken line of Republicans to the Senate since 1932.
“Kansans like balance, particularly at the state level,” said former Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who was elected to two terms during George W. Bush’s presidency and has returned to the state after serving as secretary of health and human services under former President Barack Obama.
Democrats have an opportunity to win again this year, and not just because Mr. Trump is mobilizing liberals and Mr. Kobach could frighten moderates.
Kansas is also more hospitable to Democrats this year because Mr. Brownback’s so-called tax experiment — slashing rates in hopes of stimulating the state economy — led to highly controversial spending cuts to education and other programs to balance the budget. The cuts infuriated Democrats but also brought the dormant-but-not-dead divisions within the G.O.P. roaring back to life.
So Mr. Brownback, who is now the United States ambassador at large for international religious freedom, left Topeka with unsightly approval ratings after warring with Democrats and his own party for nearly two full terms.
And he has left his one-time lieutenant in something of a political no man’s land. Not wanting to be cast as representing a third Brownback term, Mr. Colyer said people don’t confuse him “with Sam.” But given his ties to the former governor, and the relative scarcity of moderate Republicans in a statewide primary, Mr. Colyer cannot abandon his predecessor entirely.
Compounding Mr. Colyer’s challenge, he is not the only Republican alternative to Mr. Kobach. Ken Selzer, the state insurance commissioner, and Jim Barnett, a former state senator, are also seeking the nomination.
Mr. Barnett is especially problematic to Mr. Colyer. He is running as an unambiguous moderate and therefore drawing Republican voters who may otherwise side with the governor in an effort to block Mr. Kobach from the nomination. But Mr. Barnett, who was the Republican nominee when Ms. Sebelius was re-elected in 2006, said he would not withdraw from the race, saying “a vote for Colyer is a vote for Brownback.’’
He criticized his rivals for “crawling all over each other to be most anti-illegal immigration, anti-abortion, pro-gun candidate.”
Mr. Barnett denied Republican claims that he had been offered a cabinet post by Democrats. But he said he and Mr. Colyer met privately at a Topeka coffee shop in the spring and that, since then, one of the governor’s donors had repeatedly asked him to leave the race, offering a job in the cabinet in return. Mr. Colyer said he was not aware of any such deal-making but stressed there would be opportunities for the “talented people in the race,” even invoking Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals.
But what worries Republicans is that some from their centrist wing are already siding with the Democrats, even though Mr. Kobach has yet to even win the nomination.
One of them is State Senator Barbara Bollier. She is the sort of voter the G.O.P. cannot afford to lose, a woman bearing a graduate degree who hails from populous and prosperous Johnson County, the well-manicured Kansas City suburb that Mr. Colyer also calls home.
But Ms. Bollier has endorsed her colleague and the likely Democratic nominee for governor, State Senator Laura Kelly.
“She’s a moderate and Kansas is in general a moderate state,” said Ms. Bollier, noting that bipartisan majorities in the legislature voted to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, only to see Mr. Brownback veto the bill.
The challenge for Kansas Democrats, though, is that Ms. Kelly is not the only alternative for dissident Republicans or unaffiliated voters uneasy with Mr. Kobach and Mr. Colyer.
Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman who ran as an independent against Senator Pat Roberts in 2014, is also seeking the governorship this year, again as an independent. Having already spent $650,000 of his own money, Mr. Orman threatens to siphon votes away from Democrats, potentially allowing Mr. Kobach or Mr. Colyer to win the governorship with only a plurality.
His candidacy has infuriated Democrats, who are stung in part because they effectively undid their nominating process in 2014 to let Mr. Orman serve as their de facto standard-bearer against Mr. Roberts.
“It’s all about ego,” Ms. Sebelius said of Mr. Orman’s candidacy. She said there had been “a whole lot of people approaching Greg saying, ‘Do not do this’ and ‘All you can do is be a spoiler.’”
Ms. Sebelius said the effort to push Mr. Orman out of the race would intensify, but if he does not leave, Democrats would have to “Jill Stein him” — a reference to the Green Party presidential nominee who drained votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and warn that “a vote for him is just a vote for Kobach.”
Asked about the criticism that he would simply assure a Republican victory, Mr. Orman said, “Votes aren’t the property of the parties, they belong to the people.”
At least one Republican seemed confident about the source of Mr. Orman’s support.
“A liberal independent jumping in?” said Mr. Kobach, with evident delight. “I think he will probably take votes from the Democrats.”
As for his state’s “throw the bums out” impulse, Mr. Kobach said he would be even more of a conservative than Mr. Brownback. “It is time for a change,” he said. “But the time for a change doesn’t have to be in a leftward direction.”