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Kansas Senate rivals try to minimize Kobach's ties to Trump

U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., a candidate for the U.S. Senate, participates in a debate at a statewide Republican convention, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Olathe, Kan. Marshall says he has an "incredible" relationship with President Donald Trump and argues that he's best position to defeat a Democrat in the November election. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., a candidate for the U.S. Senate, participates in a debate at a statewide Republican convention, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Olathe, Kan. Marshall says he has an "incredible" relationship with President Donald Trump and argues that he's best position to defeat a Democrat in the November election. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

OLATHE, Kan. – Hardline conservative Kris Kobach tried Saturday to reassure his fellow Kansas Republicans that if they nominate him for the U.S. Senate, they wouldn't have to worry that he'd lose to a Democrat again because no one is closer than he is to President Donald Trump in a state that Trump is expected to carry easily.

Trump loomed large during a debate between Kobach and two of the three other leading Republican candidates seeking the Senate nod, with Rep. Roger Marshall, of western Kansas, and state Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, also vowing to be in lock-step with Trump if elected this November.

It was an easy case to make for Kobach, who was the first prominent Kansas politician to back Trump in 2016, who served as vice chairman of a presidential commission on election fraud, and who he says he still advises Trump regularly. However, Kobach lost the 2018 governor's race to Democrat Laura Kelly after alienating GOP moderates with his take-no-prisoners style of conservatism and longtime advocacy of tough immigration policies. And many Republicans fear that if Kobach is their nominee for the seat held by retiring four-term Sen. Pat Roberts, Democrats will have an opening to win their first Senate race in Kansas since 1932.

During Saturday's debate at the statewide GOP convention in Olathe, Kobach sought to dispel those fears, arguing that the Senate race has a different dynamic than the governor's race and will bring out more Trump voters who back the president's immigration policies. The turnout is expected to be much higher: About 1.23 million Kansans voted in the 2016 presidential race, or nearly 17% more than the 1.06 million who voted in the 2018 governor's race.

“The best Senate candidate who can capture all of the votes that go to President Trump is the candidate who aligns most closely with President Trump,” Kobach said. “I'm the only person who's been advising the president. I'm the only person whose No. 1 issue has been President Trump's No. 1 issue: immigration.”

Wagle argued that the best way to help Trump is to elect fellow conservatives. During Saturday's debate before about 600 party activists, Wagle twice pointed at Kobach and suggested that he set the conservative movement back by losing to Kelly. Wagle also predicted that Kelly will help fellow Democrats fundraise to defeat conservatives in this year's election.

“I have a Democrat governor now who's raising money and she is promoting liberal policy,” Wagle said the second time, her voice rising. “We need a proven fighter, folks. We need someone who can help Trump, help Kansas, and elect Republicans down-ballot.”

Many Republicans are nervous about Kobach because the leading Democratic candidate, state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a retired Kansas City-area anesthesiologist, raised almost $1.1 million in contributions in the last quarter of 2019, which was double the amount raised by the top four GOP candidates combined.

Kobach has raised less than $352,000 for his Senate race and began this year with about $190,000 in cash. Marshall had almost $1.9 million in cash, thanks to a large balance brought over from his U.S. House campaign. Wagle had about $523,000 in cash.

The fourth top GOP candidate, Dave Lindstrom, a Kansas City-area businessman and retired Kansas City Chiefs player, did not participate in the debate because he had emergency kidney stone surgery on Friday, GOP leaders said.

In 2018, Trump tweet-endorsed Kobach the day before the August primary for governor, helping Kobach narrowly defeat GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer. The president has yet to endorse a candidate in the Senate race, though he met with Marshall in the Oval Office in January, and Kobach said they talked about the race the same day.

Marshall sought to undercut Kobach's claim of a special relationship with Trump, noting that Trump invited him to a ceremony for the signing of a new trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Marshall also said Trump has thanked him for his support on trade and agriculture issues and for defending Trump against impeachment. He's said he's voted 98% of the time with Trump.

“I've had his back," Marshall said “I have an incredible relationship with the president, and that's why he supported me and not anybody else on this stage.”

Marshall later clarified that he was talking only about Trump's support on trade and agriculture, but his comment irked Kobach supporters, and Kobach called it “the most ridiculous statement that was made in the debate.” Kobach also mocked Marshall's claim of voting 98% of the time with Trump, suggesting that any Republican in Congress would vote with Trump at least 95% of the time because most votes were non-controversial.

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