Trump ties put to test in Kansas race

Thursday’s special House primary election in Kansas will mark the first test for President Trump’s former campaign aides looking to follow his path to public office.

Alan Cobb, a candidate to replace CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his safely red district, is pitching his ties with Trump as a main selling point for his campaign.

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The Kansan served in a variety of roles during the campaign and the transition before he decided to run for office, experience he’s now selling as beneficial to his would-be constituents.

“I’m in a unique position to make sure the interests of the 4th District are as high on the list of the priorities of the administration as possible,” Cobb told The Hill in an interview.

“There are some things that … may not reach the total attention of the White House, and I’ll be in the position to make sure they do, whether it’s general aviation, agriculture, technology, oil and gas — the things that drive that south-central Kansas economy.”

Thursday’s vote won’t be a standard primary. Instead, 126 district delegates will select the Republican nominee during an evening nominating convention. The nominee must win the majority of delegates, which could take the race to multiple ballots if there isn’t initial consensus on the large field.

Democrats in the 4th District will hold a similar convention on Saturday afternoon, while any registered Libertarians in the district will be able to vote on their party’s nominee the same day.

That leaves the victors little time to kick into campaign gear for a special election on April 11, when the district’s voters will choose Pompeo’s replacement.

Trump hasn’t made an official endorsement from the White House, but members of his staff have made their preference known.

Dan Scavino Jr. — an early Trump campaign staffer and now the White House director of social media — heaped praise on Cobb on Twitter a week before he officially announced his candidacy, noting that he’s been with Trump “from the beginning.”

And local delegate Deb Lucia told The Hill that Sam Clovis, Trump’s former campaign co-chair, sent delegates a letter supporting Cobb.

“He’s using the Trump factor,” a former Kansas political aide said. “That is a huge thing that Alan is playing up.”

“Dan Scavino tweeted something for Alan Cobb, which Cobb can mention … basically implying ‘Hey, Trump’s for me.’ ”

It’s too early to tell how much of a role Trump and his team will play in upcoming elections, but they have indicated their willingness to get involved.

Back in January, Trump personally made calls to those casting a vote in the race for Ohio Republican Party chair, urging them to vote against the incumbent party chairman, an ally of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of Trump’s opponents in the GOP presidential primary. Trump’s pick eventually triumphed.

And Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is already telling donors that Trump’s camp wants to become a decisive factor in conservative primaries, according to a recent BuzzFeed report. But with the 2018 cycle still in the early stages, Bannon is reportedly directing donors to Trump-aligned outside groups.

Kansas Republicans who spoke to The Hill said that Cobb and state Treasurer Ron Estes are leading the top of the pack, with Estes slightly ahead.

Estes, a two-term state treasurer, is the only GOP candidate who has successfully mounted a statewide run in the past. He’s leveraged his experience as treasurer to make balanced budgeting — an issue of utmost importance to many conservatives — a centerpiece of his bid.

“Our campaign has tremendous momentum in the final days because delegates in the 4th District want a grassroots conservative who is committed to engineering conservative change in Washington,” Estes said in a statement.

The former Kansas political aide also pointed to the influence of Estes’s wife, Susan, a well-known party activist in the Wichita-area district. The primary’s convention format relies on winning over the majority of the local party officials who make up the delegation, so those added political ties could help Estes.  

Former Rep. Todd Tiahrt is another big name in the race, thanks to his eight terms as the district’s congressman. But Tiahrt unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2010 and angered some within the district after a failed primary challenge to Pompeo in 2014.

Tiahrt, who did lobbying and consulting work in Washington and Kansas after his tenure, didn’t return requests for comment.

The rest of the GOP field includes a member of the Wichita City Council, a former talk-show host and two attorneys.

The Democratic field consists of a former state treasurer, a former House candidate, an international business consultant, a police officer, an attorney and a minister. Three Libertarians are also running.

But the conservative district is expected to stay within GOP hands. Trump won the district over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE by 27 points according to calculations by the liberal blog Daily Kos, whose founder, Markos Moulitsas, writes a column for The Hill.

Republican candidates have been making the rounds with delegates in private meetings, public forums and phone calls over the past few weeks.

Along with his Trump ties, Cobb has deep roots in Kansas politics as a past aide to former Sen. Bob Dole (R) and Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsTrump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash  GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (R). Cobb also worked on Pompeo’s past reelection.

But while Cobb has roots and grew up in the district, his opponents seized on the fact he doesn’t currently live in there. Candidates don’t need to live in the district to run, only the state.

Estes, in contrast, touts his more than 20 years of residing in the district.

“If elected to Congress, my family and I will continue to live here and I will be back in the district every weekend to visit with my constituents,” Estes said. “I’m accountable to the voters of the district and not the insiders in Washington.”

Cobb also has strong ties to Charles and David Koch as the former Kansas director for the billionaire brothers’ conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and as a lobbyist for Koch Industries.

Cobb isn’t the only Kansas Republican with a close relationship to the Kochs, who base their corporate headquarters in the state. Susan Estes previously worked for AFP in Kansas. An AFP spokesperson said the group has no plans to get involved in the race.

Cobb is running against current and former lawmakers, but he dismissed any concerns about his lack of name recognition. He’s also earned the endorsement of the Tea Party Express.

If no candidate reaches a majority of votes, the one with the least amount of votes will be dropped and another round of voting will occur until someone reaches 50 percent. That throws even more uncertainty into the mix, as it’s possible the candidate with the plurality of support going into the convention won’t manage to emerge victorious.

There’s no clear favorite going into Thursday night’s vote and many delegates remain undecided.

“This is an unusual deal,” said John Stevens, an undecided delegate and the president of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. “I’ve been a delegate here for quite a while and this is the biggest deal we’ve ever had to be responsible for.”

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