Anti-illegal immigration hardliner and one-time Trump ally on voter fraud conspiracies Kris Kobach overcame the Kansas Republican establishment on Tuesday to win the party’s nomination for state attorney general.
Republicans voted in favor of the former Kansas secretary of state over state Sen. Kellie Warren and former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi.
That could set the stage for Kobach, if elected in November, to use the platform of the attorney general’s office to recapture national attention by pursuing hot-button issues through attacks on the Biden administration.
After the race was called, Kobach acknowledged many Republican leaders and conservative funding groups lined up to support Warren. Yet he was able to pull off the victory.
“It shows that the ordinary voters of our state will not be told who is going to represent them,” Kobach said.
Both the Warren and Mattivi campaigns looked to overcome the high profile Kobach earned from his focus on national issues like voter fraud and illegal immigration. That helped him build a national brand by getting close to former President Donald Trump — who later endorsed him in 2018 in what was eventually a doomed run for governor — and routinely appearing on conservative news shows.
Kobach touted his law career that includes defending city and state statutes from legal challenges as one of the reasons he prevailed.
“Voters recognize my background is the right background for the job of Kansas attorney general,” Kobach said.
While Warren shares much of Kobach’s ideology, she had the backing of a Kansas Republican establishment that feared his political baggage makes him vulnerable to handing over the job to a Democrat for the first time since 2011. Kobach also has a reputation as a poor fundraiser for his political campaigns.
Some also speculated Mattivi’s bid would only take away votes from Warren and hand the race to Kobach. Just days before the election, a conservative political action committee warned in text messages to voters that supporting Mattivi would help Kobach and the only way to stop him was to cast a ballot for Warren.
In fact, Warren and Mattivi split about 58% of the vote. Warren conceded the race to Kobach.
“Seeing so many good people devote their time, talent and treasure to my campaign has been humbling and a great honor,” Warren said.
Warren was endorsed by the Kansas Senate’s entire Republican leadership, and she had received financial contributions from big conservative donors, such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Livestock Association.
On the campaign trail, Warren regularly attacked Kobach for losing the 2018 governor’s race, which put Democrat Laura Kelly in charge of the state. Warren touted the fact that she had never lost an election, although this was her first try for statewide office.
“I have been tested, and I win,” Warren said recently. “And the other candidate: conservative Republican but doesn’t win.”
Warren also attacked Kobach for flubbing the defense of the state’s voter ID law in court in 2018. That cost Kansas almost $2 million in court fees and a federal judge ordered Kobach to take remedial law classes.
Meanwhile, Warren has 25 years of experience as an attorney. She said she began her political career in the Kansas Legislature because her Johnson County district was represented by someone she called a “woke” Republican. Two years later she ran for the Kansas Senate, again defeating a Republican incumbent.
“We have to have a conservative Republican like me, who wins tough elections,” Warren said, “and then wins on conservative policies once elected.”
In the Senate, she currently chairs the judiciary committee. That put her in a key position to push for the amendment to the Kansas Constitution stripping out protections of abortion rights. Voters also cast their ballots on that issue on Tuesday, overwhelmingly defeating it.
Mattivi, on the other hand, campaigned on his career as a prosecutor despite little name recognition among voters. He said he wanted to be an attorney general focused on doing the job to protect Kansans, not a politician.
Mattivi had never run for election before. Instead, he’s been a prosecutor at every level for the last 30 years, including serving the state in the attorney general’s office about 24 years ago.
“If you insist that your chief law enforcement official actually be a law enforcement official, I’m the only candidate in the race with those qualifications,” Mattivi said.
Then there was Kobach, who ran on a platform similar to his long-political career, including his two terms as Kansas Secretary of State. He first focused on his plan to sue President Joe Biden’s administration for federal overreach every chance he gets.
“I’ll wake up every morning having my breakfast thinking about what our next lawsuit against Joe Biden is going to be,” Kobach said.
While Warren and Mattivi said they too planned to challenge Biden’s administration in court, Kobach touted that he has already done it. He’s sued Biden’s administration twice as a private attorney on behalf of groups challenging COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Kobach also said he would continue to pursue voter fraud, despite little evidence supporting its existence. But this time he would be doing it as the top lawyer for the state.
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said Kobach will continue to focus on those issues again as attorney general.
“It would be a lot of hot-button issues, a lot of high-profile issues,” Smith said. “And the man would keep himself in the news a lot.”
Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.