Has the dark night of our political soul passed? Not when Kobach comes out of the shadows

November 13, 2022 3:33 am
Kansas Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach chats with reporters in front of cameras

Kansas Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach chats on election night. After unsuccessful bids for governor and U.S. Senate, Kobach will be Kansas’ chief law enforcement officer. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Less than three hours before the polls opened on Election Day last week there was a total eclipse of the moon. Called a Blood Moon because the orb turns a dusky red as the shadow of the earth passes over it, totality was reached at 4:17 a.m. — and it was the only eclipse ever to coincide with a U.S. general election.

We couldn’t see the eclipse here in east central Kansas because we were socked in with cloud cover. That was OK with me, because just the idea of a first ever Blood Moon Election Day eclipse was a bad sign. It’s not that I’m superstitious, although now I think about it I do have a silly aversion to black cats and spilled salt, but the pundits had already scared the hell out of me going into Tuesday.

The national forecasts were grim for anybody not wearing a red hat. The pollsters and prognosticators were saying a crimson wave was coming — nay, a tsunami — that would reshape the political terrain. Democrats were bracing for a shellacking across the board. It was going to be 2010 all over again, we were told, when the Tea Party-fueled GOP flipped a historic 60 House seats. Only this time, the red tide would be swelled by election denial.

Now that the red-tinged fog of political muck and fear mongering has begun to clear, it is possible to look back on Tuesday’s midterm and see that it wasn’t the knife in the heart of democracy that many of us had feared, at least not yet. It was more like slamming your hand in the car door, dropping your pocket knife point-first into your bare foot, or having chest pains and rushing to the emergency department only to be told it was a panic attack. Not fatal, in other words, but not pleasant.

Trump-loving election deniers failed to run the table.

The GOP has likely won the House by a slim margin but control of the Senate is projected to remain with Democrats, after Saturday’s projected win of Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. What caused those forecasts of a red deluge to prove unreliable? It may have been fear among some voters that democracy itself was at stake, the failure of the GOP to articulate a solution to the inflation crisis, a referendum on the political viability of Donald Trump and women voters who were galvanized to defend abortion rights post-Roe.

Here in Kansas, gerrymandering dirty tricks failed to unseat Sharice Davids, the only Democrat in the state’s Congressional delegation. Democrat Laura Kelly was re-elected by a slim margin in what is believed the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in state history. Kris Kobach, a Brownback-era Republican, made a political comeback by being narrowly elected attorney general.

You may remember Kobach.

As secretary of state from 2011 to 2019, he implemented one of the most draconian voting laws in the country, one that required proof of citizenship before registering to vote. After the law was overturned by a federal district judge, who found there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud as Kobach had claimed, he was held in contempt of court and ordered to take six hours of remedial constitutional law classes. The state attorney general’s office also agreed to pay the American Civil Liberties Union and other attorneys $1.9 million in legal fees and expenses incurred during the court battle.

While Kobach will undoubtedly make good copy in the coming years for reporters and columnists and historians who study the nexus of crazy and incompetent, his return to political power casts a chilling shadow. His track record of political hokum and personal hucksterism is a poor resume for the work of the state's chief law enforcement officer.

– Max McCoy

While Kobach will undoubtedly make good copy in the coming years for reporters and columnists and historians who study the nexus of crazy and incompetent, his return to political power casts a chilling shadow. His track record of political hokum and personal hucksterism is a poor resume for the work of the state’s chief law enforcement officer, and it is sad to think a slim majority of Kansans fell for his “Let’s sue Brandon” campaign promise. Some are already comparing Kobach to Phill Kline, the Republican attorney general who was reprimanded for ethics violations in his pursuit of abortion providers from the early 2000s, but Kobach has the potential and the appetite for bigger outrages.

Kobach was Trumpian long before 45 took the ride down the golden escalator. The original voter fraud hoaxer, Kobach charged cities across the country millions of dollars to enact anti-immigration laws, none of which remain standing more than a decade later. He was nearly tapped to become a kind of “immigration czar” under Trump, was an early advocate of building a wall on the southern border, and ran a losing campaign for governor in 2018 in which he campaigned in a red, white and blue Jeep with a replica machine gun.

While Kelly and Kobach have gotten the most attention in the state’s midterms, because they are the faces of competing political viewpoints, there was another question on Tuesday’s ballot with the potential for more far-reaching change for Kansas. That was the amendment to the state constitution that would have given the Legislature veto power over executive branch rules and regulations.

The amendment was placed on the ballot by a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate after political backlash over COVID-19 lockdown and masking rules. The amendment would have required only a simple majority by voters. If passed, it would have changed the balance of power among the branches of government, as enshrined in the state constitution. It would have weakened the executive branch by allowing the Legislature to revoke or suspend any administrative rules or regulations it didn’t like.

But as Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter pointed out, the amendment was not easy to read; on the Flesch Reading Ease scale, it comes in at the post-graduate level. Try it yourself: “Whenever the Legislature by law has authorized any officer or agency within the executive branch of government to adopt rules and regulations that have the force and effect of law, the Legislature may provide by law for the revocation or suspension of any such rule and regulation or any portion thereof, upon a vote of a majority of the members then elected or appointed and qualified in each house.”

Got it? Me neither. But obfuscation is the point.

It’s amendments like these, cloaked in language that few can understand, that are a clear and present danger to our democracy. The confusing verbiage is chillingly similar to the constitutional amendment offered up to voters Aug. 2 which would have ultimately ended a constitutional guarantee to abortion access in the state.

In a move that most saw as unexpected, Kansas decisively rejected turning abortion rights over to state lawmakers, 59-41%. It turned out that Kansans were less interested in red or blue and more concerned about basic human dignity.

Last Tuesday, Kansans were nearly evenly split, or perhaps evenly confused, on the legislative veto amendment. With all of the state’s 4,040 precincts finally reporting, the unofficial result was that it had been defeated by a margin of less than 1%. Barring a recount, the amendment appears to have failed.

We came within a whisker of allowing partisan extremists to meddle (without the tiresome duty of actually turning bills into law) in the rules and regulations of just about every state agency, including those that rely on critical professional expertise, such as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Kansans made the right choice, but barely.

These types of amendments aren’t going away anytime soon. They will come back time and again, with wording that it takes a law degree to understand. They will be power grabs designed to disenfranchise, to shift and consolidate power for political gain, and they may eventually pass because we don’t understand them or because we are suffering such political fatigue that we can’t summon the desire to care anymore. That’s when the extremists win.

Increasingly, the battle for democracy is being fought not only at our nation’s capital, but in our statehouses and city halls and school boards. No longer is it possible to be complacent, to shirk the duty to vote, or to remain uninformed on the issues. Even though democracy was not washed away last week by a tide of election deniers, it could have been. We cannot yet assume a return to normalcy.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

Oh, but there is some good news for those, like me, who avoid walking under ladders and avoid scheduling anything important for Friday the 13th: There won’t be another Blood Moon eclipse on election day until the year 2394. We won’t be around them, but with a little luck and eternal vigilance, the American experiment might just be.

The moon may rule the tides, but democracy is up to us.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.