Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach — rivals for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — are both diehard conservatives. On the campaign trail, they squabble over who’s more conservative on core issues like immigration, abortion, guns and taxes.
It’s clear, if elected, either would keep the state on a conservative path. The question for primary voters is whose approach would be best for tackling that agenda.
“There is very little daylight between them on most of the issues, but management and work style is hugely important to me,” said Marjorie Robinow, a business consultant who attended a GOP debate this month in Johnson County.
Watching the candidates on stage, Robinow said, solidified her support of Colyer.
“He listens,” she said, noting that immediately after taking the reins from former Gov. Sam Brownback in January, Colyer met with both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders.
“We need people who are going to talk to each other, not go off on tangents,” she said.
Val, a retired delivery truck driver (he declined to give his last name fearing it could cause problems for his wife, who's a government employee), said Kobach's performance at that Johnson County debate sold him.
“I was on the fence,” he explained. “I see Kris Kobach as a really tough leader. He will stand and fight for what he believes.”
Kobach is not one to shrink from controversy. That was in evidence earlier this summer when the secretary of state showed up for the Old Shawnee Days Parade in a red-white-and-blue Jeep equipped with a replica machine gun. It caused such a stir that local officials issued an apology and promised to consider new rules for parade entries.
Calling his critics “snowflakes,” Kobach has made the Jeep a fixture at parades and campaign events, offering supporters chances to have their pictures taken with it.
“We need a governor (who) when lefties attack, he hits right back,” he said at a GOP forum in Parsons. “So, I didn’t back down when they complained about the Jeep, I doubled down.”
'Full-throttle' vs. 'workhorse'
Kobach seems to enjoy the verbal combat of debates, too.
In Johnson County, a smiling Kobach poked Colyer for failing to take the lead with legislation to deny in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students. And he criticized the governor for supporting a half-billion dollar increase in public school funding believing it would be enough to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.
“I told him not to sign the bill,” Kobach said, referencing the court’s latest ruling that funding was still not adequate.
“If you keep paying the ransom, they’ll keep demanding the ransom,” he said.
Responding, Colyer said it would have been irresponsible to risk a court-order shutdown of Kansas schools.
“It wasn’t ransom,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Colyer didn’t try to match Kobach’s stage presence. Instead, he poked at the secretary of state for his charisma, characterizing him as a “show pony” who constantly “runs to the cameras” instead of focusing on the responsibilities of his office.
“My Dad told me there are two kinds of horses: There are show ponies and there are workhorses,” Colyer said. “Kansans know the difference.”
Kobach’s string of losses to the ACLU in cases challenging Kansas's strict voting laws is proof he is distracted, the governor said.
Noting the growing intensity of the back and forth between the frontrunners during joint appearances, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer regularly tells audiences, “I hope you see me as the calm and sensible business person in the group.”
Selzer, who’s running for governor after one term as the state’s insurance regulator, is trying to thread the needle politically. He’s a conservative who hopes also to appeal to moderate Republican voters with more nuanced positions on education, taxes and immigration.
For example, he said both Kobach and Colyer are misleading voters on the tuition issue. Under current law, he said, only undocumented students who have graduated from a Kansas high school and are on a path to citizenship can qualify for in-state tuition.
“They (Kobach and Colyer) forget to mention that when they condemn it,” Selzer said, arguing that imposing new restrictions would cost state universities millions of dollars because it would make tuition unaffordable for many of the students in question.
The only true moderate in the GOP race is former state Sen. Jim Barnett. On the campaign trail, he warns voters that electing either Colyer or Kobach would mean returning to the failed tax policies of former Gov. Sam Brownback.
“The voters have to be able to look back and see what the Brownback-Colyer tax experiment did to this state, how reckless it was,” Barnett said.
Barnett insists that a five-person primary gives him a chance to capture enough votes to challenge for the nomination. But polls show Colyer and Kobach running neck-and-neck well ahead of the pack, which also includes Patrick Kucera, a self-described “entrepreneurial evangelist” from Leawood.
Who's got whose backing
Kobach has captured some flashy endorsements, including from Donald Trump Jr. and controversial rocker Ted Nugent, who have both traveled to Kansas to headline fundraisers for him.
But, as the clock ticks down to the Aug. 7 primary, Colyer appears to be generating momentum with a string of endorsements from the Kansas Farm Bureau, the NRA and other groups that indicate he is the choice of the GOP establishment.
Colyer is also getting support from some Republican lawmakers, including Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, from Emporia.
Acknowledging that it’s somewhat unusual for legislative leaders to take sides in a primary, Longbine said he is backing Colyer because he has demonstrated a willingness to work with lawmakers and appoint competent people to lead state agencies.
“I know there might be repercussions if he (Colyer) doesn’t win,” Longbine said.
But, he said, he’s willing to take that risk because “I’m probably not going to be on the same page with the other candidate (Kobach), if he wins.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics.