TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The last time a Republican primary for Kansas attorney general was competitive, candidates argued over criminal sentencing laws and crowded prisons. That was 20 years ago.
This year’s competitive primary race is focusing on fighting Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda and has almost nothing to do with fighting crime.
The attorney general is often described as the state’s top law enforcement official: He or she oversees the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, helps county prosecutors with tough cases and pushes anti-crime initiatives. The AG also represents Kansas in civil cases, defends state laws in court and fights consumer fraud.
But in recent years state attorneys general have built political brands by filing lawsuits against the other party’s administration in Washington. Republican candidates for AG are campaigning against Biden, especially his vaccine mandates aimed at fighting the spread of COVID-19 — a public health question that traditionally would have been outside an attorney general’s area of concern.
“People are just clamoring for somebody to push back on all of this,” said Kris Van Meteren, owner of a Kansas City-area direct mail firm that works with Republicans. “And they’re looking to their state leaders, in particular the attorney general.”
Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a nationally known polarizing conservative, is attempting a comeback after losing the general election for governor in 2018 and a U.S. Senate primary in 2020. He faces Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Kellie Warren, who argues that she’s more likely than Kobach to win lawsuits against the Biden administration, and Tony Mattivi, a retired veteran federal prosecutor who says his legal chops make him the best anti-Biden champion.
Three-term Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt is running for governor. Like other GOP attorneys general, he’s joined federal lawsuits challenging a host of Biden policies. Their Democratic counterparts used the same tactic against President Donald Trump’s administration.
Warren raised the most money from donors last year, $278,000. Kobach raised $225,000 and loaned his campaign $200,000 in December, while Mattivi, new to electoral politics and launching his campaign most recently, took in almost $136,000.
While Mattivi spent most of his career as a prosecutor, he emphasizes combatting “government overreach” on his campaign website.
“The next attorney general is going to have to push back against this administration through litigation,” Mattivi said during an interview. “You want an attorney general who can do that effectively, an attorney general who walks into the courtroom having earned the respect of the judges, an attorney general who has lived and breathed complex litigation for a couple of decades.”
Mattivi worked as a paramedic in Denver and for the Shawnee County district attorney’s office before becoming a federal prosecutor in Kansas.
Mattivi for a time prosecuted the still-pending case against the alleged mastermind of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. In 2007, he spent six months in Iraq, assisting with war crimes trials of officials from dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Having retired as a prosecutor, he’s a vice president and attorney for a health care services company.
Kobach argues that if Republican voters want an attorney general who will sue the Biden administration, he’s already done it. He is representing North Dakota business owners challenging one of Biden’s vaccine mandates and Texas sheriffs challenging Biden immigration policies.
“The most important thing at this time is protecting our Constitution and protecting the people of Kansas in their in their rights against the federal government,” he said.
Kobach is a former law professor who had already built a career by advising state and local officials on enacting tough immigration policies before serving eight years as Kansas secretary of state, starting in 2011.
But Kobach’s take-no-prisoners style makes him a polarizing figure. And Kansas must pay more than $1.4 million to cover the fees of attorneys who successfully challenged a state law Kobach championed to require new voters to show proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering.
Warren argues that while Republicans want a conservative attorney general who will challenge the Biden administration, they also are seeking “a proven fighter who can win” — a pointed jab at Kobach.
Warren has served in the Legislature since 2018 and was highly visible last year in debates over the state’s COVID-19 response. She said voters can trust her because “I can put myself out there in the court of public opinion,” and service in the Legislature will make her effective in getting policy enacted.
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