Jan 12, 2020 9:00 PM

With Pompeo out, GOP can't dodge Kansas Senate race headache

Posted Jan 12, 2020 9:00 PM
Photo courtesy  Kris Kobach campaign
Photo courtesy  Kris Kobach campaign

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration Tuesday that he won’t run for Senate in Kansas returned some Republicans to worrying that they can’t block a polarizing conservative from winning the GOP nomination and putting the seat in play.

Pompeo’s decision to remain as the nation’s top diplomat, assuming he sticks by it, means the GOP can’t dodge the issue that had prompted top Republicans to woo Pompeo for months. They saw Pompeo as the best bet for torpedoing hard-right immigration policy advocate Kris Kobach’s bid for the Senate.

The turmoil in the Middle East that preceded Pompeo’s decision could help Kobach with hawkish GOP primary voters. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, has spent two decades building a national profile partly by framing illegal immigration as a national security issue and touting his work with the U.S. Justice Department right after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Some anti-Kobach Republicans focused quickly on the race’s best-funded candidate so far, GOP Rep. Roger Marshall of western Kansas. But he still faced skepticism about his conservative bona fides and whether he can stop Kobach, particularly absent a one-on-one match.

“Everybody but Kobach probably should get together and say, ‘Now why are we doing this and what are we trying to gain?’ And pick somebody and go head-to-head,” said Tim Shallenburger, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman and state treasurer.

Pompeo’s decision complicates GOP efforts to defend their 53-47 Senate majority in November’s elections. The national party and its allies face the prospect of having to put resources into Kansas, even though Republicans haven’t lost a Senate race there since 1932.

Pompeo has said repeatedly that he’d remain secretary of state as long as President Donald Trump will keep him. But his travels to Kansas last year — and comments from Trump — kept buzz about a potential candidacy alive.

He told reporters Tuesday: “I said the same thing yesterday that I’ve said for months. No.”

Fears that a Kobach nomination could put the seat in play arose even as four-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, now 83, announced a year ago that he wouldn’t seek re-election. Kobach lost the Kansas governor’s race in 2018 to Democrat Laura Kelly — a contest many in the GOP thought winnable.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee questioned Kobach’s ability to win a general election when he announced his candidacy last summer.

And Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief political strategist, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, said, “We continue to think Kobach is a loser.”

Some Republicans want to winnow the field by urging candidates at the back of the field to drop out. Kelly Arnold, another former state GOP chairman, said if candidates can’t conduct effective fundraising, “it’s time for them to get out.”

Kobach said Tuesday that his independence bothers the Republican establishment — including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and led it to woo Pompeo. His supporters argue that with Trump on the ballot in November, fears of losing the Kansas seat are misplaced.

“We’re seeing a race where conservatives are lining up behind me,” Kobach said.

Kobach also believes his background is an asset with tensions high in the Middle East. At the Justice Department, he helped develop a system that forced more than 80,000 foreign residents to register with the U.S. government so that it could know why they were there for security reasons. Widely derided by civil rights groups, it was abandoned in 2011 by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Photo courtesy Congressman Dr. Roger Marshall
Photo courtesy Congressman Dr. Roger Marshall

Marshall spokesman Eric Pahls said the congressman’s seven years in the Army Reserve are more crucial.

“Kansans want to know there’s someone with military experience helping to make these decisions,” he said.

But Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist, said Kobach has built a reputation among Republicans as “someone who doesn’t back down.”

“A foreign policy crisis is going to bring out more conservative voters,” Beatty said.

The leading Democratic candidate is state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a retired Kansas City-area anesthesiologist who made national headlines by switching from the GOP at the end of 2018. She has endorsements from Kelly and former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former two-term Democratic governor, and she already is pursuing moderate voters.

Bollier’s campaign announced Tuesday that she’s raised more than $1 million over the past three months — a sizable amount in a low-cost media state like Kansas.

But Marshall began his race with a sizeable balance from his House campaign and entered the final three months of 2019 with nearly $1.9 million in cash. That was twice as much as the combined total of his main GOP rivals, Kobach, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and Dave Lindstrom, a Kansas City-area businessman and ex-Kansas City Chiefs professional football player.

The U.S. Chamber helped Marshall win his congressional seat in 2016 by defeating tea party firebrand Rep. Tim Huelskamp. Reed said they’re considering helping him in the Senate race and the “onus is on him” to show he can win the nomination.

Marshall launched his first television ad before Christmas, describing himself as a foe to “Trump haters and their phony impeachment.”

Yet Marshall is hasn’t yet convinced some Republicans. Shallenburger sees his pro-Trump statements as “pandering” and says his ouster of Huelskamp has him perceived as a moderate, despite a conservative voting record.

Kobach is better known and, to some conservatives, just more exciting. University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said Kobach excels “at the theater” of politics, while Marshall seems “vanilla.”

“If central casting called for a generic Republican congressman, that could be Roger Marshall, right?” Miller said. “Someone to just, like, be in the background of the movie shot.”

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Jan 12, 2020 9:00 PM
Kan. election officials say they're on guard for hackers messing with your 2020 vote


TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas and federal election officials say they know the 2020 election could come under attack from foreign governments or rogue hackers. They also insist they’re braced to guard against efforts to tamper with voting.

In recent elections, Russian hackers tried to breach election systems in more than 20 states and successfully accessed voter registration data in Illinois. The top election official in Kansas assumes  the state’s voting system could be next.


“We got a U.S. Senate seat up for election, so that even makes it more of a target,” Republican Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said. “We’re not going to assume we’re safe, even though we are right now.”

Federal law enforcement officials warn that foreign governments will try to undermine the results and influence public sentiment.

“Russia, China, Iran and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions,” read a joint statement from the FBI and other federal security officials last month.

The risks

The dangers aren’t always as clear-cut as changing votes. A greater risk could lie in meddling with the system that decides whether somebody even gets a ballot.

The humble poll book is an Election Day staple. It lists voters and is used to count who has cast ballots. It now often exists in digital form, rather than on paper.

Tinker with the poll books and you’ve disrupted an election.

Hacking poll books on Election Day would create chaos by slowing down voting dramatically as would-be voters fill out provisional ballots.

“It would take forever. The lines would wrap around the block,” said Dan Wallach, who studies election security at Rice University. “People would just say ‘I can’t wait this long to vote’ and then not vote.”

Messing with the poll books doesn’t directly change votes, but strategically causing chaos could shift an election.

“If I can cause long lines in areas that have one partisan direction and everything goes smoothly in areas with a different partisan direction,” Wallach said, “then I can affect the outcome.”

Focus on counties

In Kansas, the 105 counties control those poll books and count the actual votes.

Schwab is focusing on counties as part of efforts to boost security before 2020 because 105 counties means 105 different computer systems. They’re sometimes shared between departments, like between a county clerk and a county treasurer. That creates shared risks when someone falls for something as simple as a phishing email.

“We don’t want somebody in the treasurer’s office saying ‘oh, click here to get a free Xbox’ and then it affects the server that the poll book is on,” Schwab said.

Schwab’s office is looking over state and local systems with the help of a $4.5 million federal grant. Most of that will go to security updates in local offices.

The actual ballot counting is done by county clerks, so Schwab’s office is talking to them about getting things right. The office will look to see whether counties need updates such as better firewalls on computers.

“It’s a profile of the counties that have their exposure,” Schwab said. “What is that exposure and what are the resources needed to make it more secure?”

In Shawnee County, there are multiple levels of security. Data is encrypted and there are backups for things like the poll book. The voting machines and the machines that count the ballots never hook up to the internet.

Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell points to another low-tech security measure. The voting machines print paper ballots that can be recounted if needed.

“We did a lot of public input before we purchased equipment,” Howell said. “It was pretty clear to me that the public really preferred to know that all of their ballots would be paper.”

Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell during a test vote in Topeka.CREDIT STEPHEN KORANDA / KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

Some voters in about 10 Kansas counties still cast ballots on systems that lack that paper trail, but that number is expected to shrink before the 2020 election.

Schwab said smaller counties often have less security. However, the head of the state’s election official association said that doesn’t mean they’re doing a bad job with security.

“For being in a small community, I’m pretty comfortable where it is right now,” Meade County Clerk Janet Hale said.

Meade County in southwest Kansas has a population of around 4,100. Even though it doesn’t have the resources of a larger county, Hale’s office has someone who handles their technology and security. The county uses paper poll books on election day and went back to paper ballots.

While hackers pose a potential threat to vote counts and poll books, Schwab said that isn’t the extent of the threat.

Trolls that flood Facebook or Twitter with bogus stories can influence people before the first vote is cast. Part of election security is thinking twice before believing or sharing that thing your relative posted on Facebook.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.