The Secretary of State's race in Kansas has become one of the most important races of the election season. Why? Because issues like immigration and questions about government accountability are part of the debate.
At the center of that debate -the controversial, telegenic UMKC law professor and immigration activist, Kris Kobach.
Kobach's been exciting crowds at fundraisers and Tea Party rallies all year. When Sarah Palin was in Independence, people cheered Kobach almost as much as Palin.
He's got ivy league credentials. He helped fashion the Patriot Act as adviser to Attorney General, John Ashcroft.
At the moment, he's the darling of conservatives for his work on immigration.
"Thank you ,thank you. I'm so overwhelmed at the size of this crowd! This should send a very clear message....that ILLEGAL MEANS ILLEGAL."
Kobach's campaign had a setback when a federal audit revealed discrepancies with the finances of the Kansas Republican party while he was chairman. Kobach took responsibility by saying he'd hired an incompetent finance officer.
But he's consistently said the overarching issue in the race is voter fraud, particularly among illegals. He believes they're easily manipulated for money, or by those who want to skew elections.
A 2009 report by Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh's office found some 50 cases of voter fraud, reported by eye witnesses or election judges, with varying degrees of evidence. Only 1 case was prosecuted.
Kobach says that's either because of a lack of resources or political will. As Secretary of State, he says he'd change that.
"The Secretary of State's office collects the reports of voter fraud, but doesn't act on them. That's something I would change as Secretary of State. I would set up system of parallel prosecution. If the county didn't have resources or expertise to go after voter fraud, then the state could bring the prosecution."
Elizabeth Ensley has 11 years experience as administrator with the Secretary of State's office and 18 years as Shawnee County Election Commissioner. On a recent evening, she was meeting with a handful of Republicans around chips and salsa at an Overland Park Mexican restaurant.
"And I talked to Darla Jay. A lot of people are getting their heads out of their rear-ends and getting informed. They know elections have consequences...."
Ensley supports voter i.d. She believes a driver's license is enough proof of citizenship, and that Arizona-type immigration laws are a diversion from the more important function of the office such as preserving records and voter rolls.
"They don't directly affect the Secretary of State's office, and we need to keep the focus directly on the Secretary of State's office."
J.R. Claeys, a former journalist and trade association executive who grew up in Salina, is the third Republican primary candidate. He shares a concern about voter fraud and has experience helping preserve integrity in elections overseas as an election monitor. His website also describes extensive experience in Washington working on behalf of small business. Repeated attempts to contact Mr. Claeys were unsuccessful.
In a side room of Paulucci's Italian restaurant in downtown Atchison, a bridge game that's happened weekly for 65 years resumes after a campaign stop by Chris Biggs.
Biggs became the 2nd Democratic Secretary of State in the history of Kansas when Ron Thornburgh resigned and he was appointed by Governor Mark Parkinson.
A former Securities Commissioner and Geary County prosecutor, Biggs says if there is voter fraud, he'd be the one to handle it. As prosecutor, Biggs says he had 50 thousand cases. One was voter fraud- which he prosecuted.
He believes voter i.d. is an unnecessary expense because almost half the population now votes by mail. And he doesn't buy the notion undocumented immigrants are being used by Democrats.
"We have no evidence we have numbers of illegal immigrants voting in our Kansas elections. First of all, it's not very rational if you think about it. Am I going to use my campaign funds to put up yard signs, get my people out to vote, or am I gonna say 'Hey, go get these people who are here illegally.. and want no contact with government. Indoctrinate them with a political philosophy and get them to register to vote?' It doesn't make any sense."
Democratic State Senator Chris Steineger greets voters in the offices of Scientific Plastics, a mom and pop company on Southwest Boulevard, to discuss his message of fiscal conservatism and environmental sustainability - another novel approach to the office of Secretary of State.
Steineger also had a problem early on when the state ethics committee fined him 5 thousand dollars for misusing Senate campaign funds. He also acknowledged his mistake and apologized. In another blow to the campaign, the Senate Minority leader asked Steineger to pull out in order to help the party win the seat. Steineger refused. He said this year people are voting for the person, not the party.
"What I know about the elections that have transpired so far in this country is that the candidates that are more closely allied with partisan ideologues are candidates that are getting beat, and ones that are more independent minded are ones that are being chosen by the people this year."
Without reviewing court records for all 105 Kansas Counties, it would be impossible to know exactly how much voter fraud there is in the State. Former Secretary of State Thornburgh declined to comment on the report his office put out last year. He promised his private sector employees he wouldn't get involved in politics.
But the study panel did conclude by saying Kansas elections were orderly and based on sound laws. That's an assessment shared by University of Kansas Political Science Professor Burdette Loomis.
"We're not Chicago. We're not Louisiana. Kansas politics are pretty darn clean."
But this year is different. We won't know until after November whether national voting trends and issues like immigration will have an impact on a typically low turn-out, mid term campaign. .