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Published: Thursday, July 26, 2018 @ 6:40 PM
Updated: Thursday, July 26, 2018 @ 6:39 PM
TOPEKA, Kan. — Conservative candidate Kris Kobach so relished criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union in the Kansas governor's race that he waved the group's mailer in the air before 250 supporters last week so they could groan in disapproval at the effort to prevent him from winning the Republican primary.
Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and sometime adviser to President Donald Trump, has made the ACLU a political foil for years as he has championed some of the toughest state voter identification and immigration policies in the nation. Now, he is hoping to ride the ACLU's attacks to victory on Aug. 7 in a hard-fought primary with Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is seeking a full four years after filling out the remainder of former Gov. Sam Brownback's term.
Kobach and his supporters have tweeted repeatedly about the ACLU's actions, and in a Thursday fundraising email, Kobach's campaign manager said the ACLU is opposing him because it wants "a weak governor who won't challenge their liberal policies."
"The enmity between me and the ACLU has been around for many, many years," Kobach said during an interview with The Associated Press.
Kobach said he believes the ACLU attacks help him in the Republican primary because of "how much conservatives and Republicans dislike them."
The ACLU mailers sent last week featured a color photo of a smiling Colyer and unflattering black-and-white one of Kobach. On two of three issues listed in the mailers — education and government transparency —Colyer was mentioned more favorably. Both were listed as unfriendly to LGBT rights.
The ACLU is spending about $200,000. It has sent about 22,000 mailers and made more than 10,000 phone calls to prospective voters — enough to influence a tight race.
The ACLU says it is not endorsing any candidates, only informing voters. Supporters of Colyer, who has the National Rifle Association's formal endorsement, contend that Kobach's attempt to tie the governor to the ACLU show he is losing.
"It smacks of desperation," Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr said Thursday.
Faiz Shakir, the ACLU's national political director, said Kobach "rises to the very top" of any list of candidates whose records on civil rights issues alarm the group.
"Kobach is unique among candidates around the country," Shakir said. "It was a natural extension of the fight we have been waging for many years against him."
The ACLU has also intervened in the U.S. Senate race in Arizona to criticize law-and-order former sheriff Joe Arpaio, and in a high-profile Democratic primary for local prosecutor in St. Louis County after a white police officer was not charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed, black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.
Kobach has a national profile and strong ties to Trump, having endorsed him early and advised his 2016 campaign and the White House. He served as vice chairman of a now-disbanded presidential commission on election fraud that was reviled by Democrats and voting-rights activists.
Kobach has publicly supported Trump's unsubstantiated claim that "millions" of people voted illegally in 2016 to cost Trump the popular vote. In advocating tougher state policies against illegal immigration, Kobach regularly and falsely calls Kansas the "sanctuary state of the Midwest."
"Kris Kobach is a guy kind of like Trump. He likes to throw out, you know, the outrageous stuff," said state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican backing Colyer. "Colyer's more measured and thinks things through."
At a parade in June in a Kansas City suburb, Kobach rode a jeep with a replica machine gun mounted on it. When some people who attended the parade complained that the stunt scared some children, he derided what he called a "snowflake meltdown" and kept riding the same jeep in other parades, posting photos on social media regularly.
Kobach has battled the ACLU repeatedly in court over strict voter ID policies, and a federal judge earlier this year struck down Kansas' requirement for new voters to show papers documenting their U.S. citizenship when registering. The state is appealing the decision.
A judge became so exasperated with Kobach earlier this year in a case brought by the ACLU that she ordered him to take remedial legal training courses for misleading the court.
Shakir said the ACLU is appealing to GOP conservatives who have concerns about voter privacy and public education.
"I am not naive in believing everyone is going to suddenly change their mind, but there is some percentage who are open to the argument," Shakir said.
But University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said the GOP's right-leaning primary voters are the wrong audience for the ACLU's message and if their intent was to "ding" Kobach, "I have to question how well they understand electoral politics."
Yvonne Starks, a conservative Republican and Kobach backer from the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, said she doesn't trust the ACLU because of its liberal leanings.
"If nothing else, it will bring out his base supporters to rally for him more," she said.
This version of the story corrects the quote in the 21st paragraph graf to say, "I have to question," instead of, "I have to understand."
Associated Press writers Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas, and Jim Salter in St. Louis also contributed.
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