Mike Brown is a former Johnson County commissioner, a failed primary candidate for GOP Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s job, and someone who has expressed sympathy for former President Trump’s lies regarding the 2020 election results. And as of last weekend, he is also the new chairperson of the Kansas Republican party. For those Republicans who want to forget election conspiracies and focus on their party’s substantive platform, this is probably frustrating.
It needs to be remembered that for many ordinary citizens across the country, the continued claims of voter fraud and rigged elections promoted by Trump make little sense. Recent polls show that election denialism has declined, and that only a third of those not already caught up in conspiracy theorizing say they find such paranoia understandable. In short, obsessing and nitpicking over close elections, especially in the wake of the attack on the Capitol in 2021 inspired by Trump’s loss, is increasing seen by many as pointless, dangerous, and strange.
Kansas Republicans, though, have a more complicated history with denialism. Long before Trump started ranting about how he was robbed — and started harassing GOP officials and his own vice-president to get them to support his lost cause — Kansas had Kris Kobach, who for years as Secretary of State focused less on his job than on prosecuting supposed illegal voters, leading to costly losses in court. Kansas Republicans, in short, have seen hysteria over election security overshadow their other responsibilities and priorities before.
Still, despite Kobach’s return to Topeka as Attorney General — after failing in races for governor and the U.S. Senate — many Kansas Republicans likely had reason to feel hopeful for the direction of the state party. Despite the closeness of his loss to Governor Kelly, Derek Schmidt left the stage without recriminations (and Kobach, securing his own very narrow win, said nothing about suing the governor). Schwab won re-election handily in the midst of national under-performance by Republicans, all while insisting the Kansas elections were secure and reliable. Perhaps they were shaking off the preoccupations of their former national leader?
Most rank and file Republicans in the state hopefully are. But some Kansas Republicans are unfortunately still obsessed with the idea, despite lacking any evidence, that nefarious actors are faking votes and corrupting election results. And now they have a state party chair on their side.
When running against Schwab in the Secretary of State GOP primary, Brown mocked his opponent for refusing to claim the same voter-hunting power Kobach had previously abused, insisted that all ballot drop-boxes should be banned, and implied that Schwab was at fault for not investigating outlandish, unsubstantiated claims about ballot-dumping and more. As party chair, he obviously won’t be involved in setting priorities for the Secretary of State, much less shaping voter legislation. Nonetheless, his narrow, 88-90 vote triumph among state party leaders is likely depressing to those Kansas Republicans hoping to move their party out of Trump’s shadow.
Of course, Trump may well be back at the top of the national GOP ticket come 2024, so perhaps the state Republican party is just getting ready to fall in line. But for Republicans who recognize how hopeless and dangerous adhering that paranoid line is — and they do exist! — Brown’s selection likely seems like as an unfortunate stop backwards, while others try to push ahead.
Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.
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