Migrant caravan gives Kobach fresh ammunition in deadlocked Kansas governor's race

President Trump greets Kris Kobach, the Republican candidate for governor of Kansas, during a campaign rally on Oct. 6, 2018, in Topeka, Kan. (Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP)

Like President Trump, Kansas gubernatorial hopeful Kris Kobach has spent much of the past week focused on the caravan of mostly Honduran migrants making its way north through Mexico. Though the capital of Kansas is about 1,000 miles from the southwest border, Kobach seized on the caravan story as part of his effort to make illegal immigration a key issue in his incredibly close governor’s race with Democrat Laura Kelly.

At a debate with Kelly and independent candidate Greg Orman on Thursday night, Kobach repeated a disputed figure that nonetheless has become a signature talking point of his campaign, claiming that the state of Kansas spends $377 million each year on welfare benefits and other public services for undocumented immigrants.

“Policies like that are why we have a caravan marching north to come to the United States, because we give out the goodies as soon as you come across the border,” Kobach declared in Garden City.

Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach listens as Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly answers a question during the Kansas gubernatorial debate on Oct. 16, 2018, in Wichita. (Photo: Brian Hayes/Wichita Eagle via AP)

His comments during the debate were reflective of an argument Kobach made in a Breitbart op-ed piece published earlier this week. In addition to echoing the White House’s claims that migrants who say they are fleeing violence and persecution in Central America are, in fact, simply taking advantage of “loopholes” in the U.S. immigration system for economic reasons, Kobach’s op-ed also pointed to “generous welfare benefits in many states (including my own state of Kansas)” and said they were creating a “magnet for illegal immigration.”

“If we want to end illegal immigration, we’ve got to stop rewarding illegal immigration,” he wrote. Seizing on the national interest Trump has generated about the caravan, Kobach went on to further peddle this perspective in interviews this week with Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity in the days leading up to this latest gubernatorial debate.

As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach has implemented some of the country’s toughest — and legally challenged — voter identification laws, including one requiring proof of U.S. citizenship that was struck down by a federal judge earlier this year. Though probably best known nationally for his much-criticized role as vice chairman of the Trump administration’s panel that examined the prevalence of voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election, Kobach also has a long and controversial history of anti-immigration activism. Most notably, he was the chief architect behind Arizona’s strict immigration law, SB 1070, the bulk of which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Kobach also helped author similar legislation in Alabama.

Kobach gives a thumbs-up sign during a parade on Sept. 29, 2018, in Overland Park, Kan. (Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP)

As a Republican candidate for governor, Kobach has continued his long-standing crusade against illegal immigration, promising to drive undocumented Kansas residents out of the state by cutting off access to public benefits.

Though he has earned the president’s endorsement and last week campaigned alongside Vice President Mike Pence, Republicans in his state have been less willing to offer their support. Two of Kansas’s former Republican governors have endorsed Kobach’s Democratic opponent, as have 27 current and former GOP state lawmakers, citing concerns over Kobach’s proposals to expand on the drastic tax and spending cuts implemented by the state’s former governor, Sam Brownback, which were largely seen as a fiscal disaster.

A survey released earlier this week by Public Policy Polling showed the race between Kobach and Kelly deadlocked at 41 percent each, with 10 percent going to independent Greg Orman and 2 percent to Libertarian Jeff Caldwell.

It’s unclear whether Kobach’s attempts to link the caravan with his hard-line immigration stance will resonate with voters. Like other rural states, Kansas has, in recent years, become home to a growing population of immigrants, many of whom are drawn by opportunities for work in manufacturing and agricultural industries. Kelly and Orman have both criticized Kobach’s stance on immigration as bad for the economy.

“So much of our economy, whether you’re talking about here in the southwest or across the state, depends upon quality immigrant labor,” Kelly said during Thursday’s debate. Striking a notably different tone from her Republican opponent, Kelly added that, if elected, she’d encourage Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform to “let people live in peace.”

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