Kris Kobach is certainly persistent. The Kansas Republican known nationally for his longtime advocacy of anti-immigrant policies is a bad politician, a bad lawyer, and the architect of some of the worst ideas afflicting American governance today. But he possesses a single, somewhat perverse political virtue: He always shows up.
On Monday, Kobach — just months removed from a stupendous shellacking by Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas gubernatorial race — stood before a "Build the Wall" banner and announced that he's running for U.S. Senate.
"It's not a time for a senator who wants to make everybody happy and doesn't want to take a stand," he said.
There's not much reason to think the state's voters will like Kobach more in 2020 than they did in 2018. It's very possible, even likely, that he's setting himself up for yet another big loss. This would be merely annoying to Kobach's critics, who would love to see him just go away. But his persistence has consequences. Because Kobach always shows up — even when voters reject him soundly — he often ends up in power, or in close proximity to it. Democrats and anybody else interested in cracking the code of American politics should thus pay close attention, because Kobach, for all his failures, has something to teach us.
And boy, his list of failures is lengthy.
He has failed at the local level: Kobach has spent much of his career helping small town craft ordinances designed to keep out illegal immigrants. The problem? The ordinances rarely passed constitutional muster. The cities and towns that took Kobach's advice often ended up with hefty legal bills — and little else to show for it.
He has failed at the state level: As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach helped pass — then enforced — a law forcing the state's citizens to prove their citizenship to vote. The ACLU sued, and Kobach lost. A judge found the law unduly burdened qualified voters, and that Kobach had failed to prove the existence of widespread voter fraud in the state. Adding insult to injury, the judge ordered Kobach to take remedial law classes for his slipshod handling of the case.
He has failed, most recently, at the federal level: He helped pitch the Trump administration on adding a census question asking recipients about their citizenship — part of a reported effort to gerrymander districts to favor Republicans and disempower Latino voters. The Supreme Court knocked back that effort — and while President Trump is trying to get it reinstated, the affair goes down on the record for now as another Kobach loss.
Kobach even failed to even launch his Senate candidacy competently, filing campaign documents that misspelled his own name. Even Kobach's fellow party members dread his candidacy at this point.
Consider this quote from Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee: "Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat. Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump's presidency and Senate majority at risk." Yikes. How often do you see a Republican talk like that, on the record, about another Republican?
Still, he persists.
And why not? Showing up, it turns out, isn't just half the battle — it's a means of accruing power. So while Kobach fails regularly, his persistence has helped make him ubiquitous in conservative circles — a regular presence on Fox News, a columnist for Breitbart. As a result, he's never far from power, or where his voice can be heard by powerful people. In politics, grit isn't just a personal virtue; it's a strategy.
There is a lesson in this for Democrats. Because let's be honest, Dems don't always show up. When Howard Dean implemented a "50 state strategy" as DNC chairman in 2005 — a policy of contesting every election, no matter how likely a loss — the move was treated as bizarre experimentation instead of common sense, then abandoned after Barack Obama became president. In 2019, that tendency toward disinclination remains a problem. After all, the best way for the next Democratic president to be successful is for the party to retake the Senate, yet leading Democrats seem fairly uninterested in making that effort.
You can't win a race you don't contest. What's more, losing a race can pave the way for other possibilities and opportunities for candidates and their ideas. If you don't believe that, ask yourself why so many Democrats are now running for president when it's clear they can't win.
Right now, Kobach is a man without a job in government — and with a fairly huge political loss on his recent resume. But because he keeps showing up, and advancing his ideas every time he does, he is in some ways closer to realizing his lifelong policy ambitions than other, seemingly more successful politicians. The immigration debate these days is being fought largely on Kobach's terms and not, say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.). Given his persistence, who is to say he won't someday soon be a U.S. senator?
Politics is a long game. The way to win, over time, is to show up again and again and again, even if you fail repeatedly in the process. There are second, third, and fourth acts in American politics. Kris Kobach knows this. The best way for Democrats to beat him, paradoxically, is to follow his example.