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2 Kansas Races Show Broader GOP Divide Over Immigration

Oct 13, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two hotly contested races in deep-red Kansas illustrate a broader Republican divide over immigration policy. One candidate has embraced President Trump's get-tough approach. The other has rejected the administration's harsher tactics and rhetoric. As Brian Grimmett with Kansas News Service reports, both approaches could have consequences at the polls.

BRIAN GRIMMETT, BYLINE: At a recent campaign rally in Kansas, talking tough on immigration was clearly a crowd pleaser.

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KRIS KOBACH: We've worked on a number of things, but the most important is stopping illegal immigration.

(CHEERING)

GRIMMETT: That's Kris Kobach, the Republican candidate for governor, standing next to President Trump. Kobach has made a career of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. As secretary of state, he's pushed for new rules requiring that people show proof of citizenship before registering to vote. As a private attorney, he worked with cities across the country to help pass ordinances that make hiring or renting to undocumented immigrants unlawful. At the rally, Kobach warned that immigrants here illegally are a drain on the state's finances.

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KOBACH: It's time to put Kansans first, not illegal aliens.

(CHEERING)

GRIMMETT: That sentiment plays well with Republicans in a state that Trump won by a wide margin. It also plays well in rural Kansas, where there's anxiety about immigrants taking jobs and bringing crime. But that rhetoric could hurt Kobach with voters in the growing suburbs of Kansas City. That's where Representative Kevin Yoder, another Republican, is taking a more moderate tone when it comes to immigration. He has been endorsed by Trump but didn't appear at the rally. In an interview with KCUR in Kansas City, Yoder says he supports Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration and the border wall. But he's also willing to work across the aisle.

KEVIN YODER: I also supported a Democratic plan that would make sure that DACA kids can't be deported. I also supported a Democratic plan that would ensure that we can't separate parents from their children.

GRIMMETT: That approach may have won over some moderates, but it alienated those further to the right. Take conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. She blasted Yoder for supporting a Democratic plan that would make it easier for migrants fleeing domestic abuse to get asylum in the United States. Yoder said he sympathized with the victims because his mother was a social worker. Here's her response on Fox News.

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LAURA INGRAHAM: Your family history shouldn't be allowed to thwart the president's immigration agenda and, frankly, imperil the party's prospects in the midterms.

GRIMMETT: Yoder eventually backed away from the Democratic plan.

YODER: There have been clear concerns that this would allow millions of people, potentially, to make fraudulent claims.

GRIMMETT: Yoder's district is increasingly home to wealthy, college-educated people, and it's skewing more democratic. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the district two years ago. University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller says Yoder is projecting a more centrist image to appeal to those changing demographics.

PATRICK MILLER: You know, he really hasn't walked away from Trump's policies, yet he's attempted to say things or express concern over things, like children being detained, that might seem more sympathetic to what's really a swing district that he represents.

GRIMMETT: In several recent polls, Yoder is trailing his challenger, Democrat Sharice Davids, and Kobach is in a dead heat with his Democratic rival, Laura Kelly. In Kansas, as in other parts of the country, it's unclear which strategy will work in the midterms, whether that's reaching out to moderates or ignoring them and relying on Trump's base. For NPR News, I'm Brian Grimmett in Wichita, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.