“You Had One Job, Kris Kobach. . . .” Partisan Politics vs Public Service in the Sunflower State

Meanwhile, here in Kansas. . . .

Just a week ago, it was a forgone conclusion that incumbent Senator Pat Roberts would win an easy plurality in a three-person race with Democrat Chad Taylor and well-funded Independent Greg Orman. Roberts, who recently fought off a strong primary challenge, is unpopular in Kansas, but being the only Republican on the ballot here is usually enough to win.

Kris Kobach has one job. It is not to do everything in his power to make sure that his party always wins.
Michael Austin
But last week Taylor announced his withdrawal from the race, leaving the unpopular Roberts in a two-person race with Orman, who immediately became the front-runner. And Kansas, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in almost a hundred years, is suddenly Ground Zero in the epic 2014 Battle for Control of the Senate.

Enter Kris Kobach, Kansas’s Secretary of State, who has ruled that, while Taylor filed a letter of withdrawal by the legally mandated deadline, the letter did not contain the correct phrasing. Thus, Chad Taylor will remain on the ballot despite his clear intention to withdraw.

Reactions have been swift, everybody has an opinion, and teams of lawyers and campaign consultants from both parties have descended on Kansas in ways that we have not seen since the days of John Brown. The Kansas Senate Race is not in Kansas anymore.

Few Kansans, though, are surprised that our Secretary of State is at the center of this national controversy. We’re used to it. In his first term of office, Kobach earned a national reputation for his role in designing the infamous Arizona immigration law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012 as an unconstitutional incursion on the enumerated powers of the Federal government.

Kansas’s Secretary of State, in other words, has done a very good job of turning a fairly minor state government post into a platform for his national political ambitions. And he has done this the way that any political aspirant in a two-party system generally does it: by trying to appeal to the party’s base.

This is normally a difficult thing for a Secretary of State to accomplish. Unlike the Federal Government—where the Secretary of State is the second most powerful position in the executive branch—state governments do not have foreign policies. State’s don’t exchange ambassadors or host diplomatic gatherings. The Secretary of State in Kansas, as in most other states, really has only one job: to ensure the integrity of elections held within our boundaries.

Kobach’s major initiative, creating strict voter ID laws, does connect fairly well to that one job. Though the results of these laws in Kansas—preventing up to 18,000 citizens from voting without uncovering a single case of actual voter fraud—don’t appear to do much for the integrity of our elections, one can at least argue rationally that such is their intent.

But this is not true of Kobach’s most recent decision. It is simply impossible to read his refusal to honor Taylor’s letter of withdrawal as anything other than a purely partisan power play designed to prevent an Independent candidate from having a chance to win an election.

Taylor specifically asked Kobach’s assistant to verify the letter and was told that it was acceptable. He submitted the letter before the deadline. This should have been no more than a stamp-and-file decision delegated to a clerk. It was never designed to be a controversial process.

However, Kobach knows that Senator Roberts has a much better change at re-election if Taylor’s name stays on the ballot. He knows that this election could determine control of the Senate, and he has long paid more attention to national Republican politics than to the integrity of actual elections in the state of Kansas.

In an irony that is often present in cases like this, Kobach’s singleminded devotion to the well-being of his own party has created an election race—his own—that is less about parties and ideologies than about ability of an election supervisor to do his job. As Kansas’s elected Secretary of State, Kris Kobach has one job. It is not to do everything in his power to make sure that his party always wins.