September 19, 2014 1:07 PM EDT

At first blush, it might seem strange that the Republican Secretary of State in Kansas is going to the mattresses in a seemingly hopeless fight to force Democrats to put a candidate on the ballot for the U.S. Senate.

But Kris Kobach is no ordinary secretary of state. Whip-smart (degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale), movie-star handsome (and a national champion rower), he is a darling of the far-right wing of the GOP, best known as the legal mastermind of the anti-illegal immigration movement.

No one doubts that Kobach, 48, has ambitions far beyond Topeka. He is a frequent speaker at conservative gatherings around the country, and racks up further frequent flyer miles as a consultant to state lawmakers who want help in writing tough restrictions on undocumented workers. His 2004 bid for Congress ended in defeat at the hands of then-incumbent Rep. Dennis Moore—but losing your first campaign says nothing about future prospects. Ask Barack Obama.

The question in Kansas is whether Kobach is helping or hurting himself with his crusade, which started when the Democratic nominee for Senate, Chad Taylor, announced that he was dropping out of the race against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

Taylor’s decision—encouraged by Democratic Party leaders in Kansas and around the country—was a calculated move to boost the chances of independent candidate Greg Orman. Polls have indicated that Roberts is vulnerable. But to beat him, the anti-Roberts voters would have to unite behind one candidate, for Kansas has elected only Republicans to the U.S. Senate since 1932.

Kobach answered by refusing to drop Taylor’s name from the ballot. Then, after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Taylor has met the requirements to leave the race, Kobach doubled down. He has ordered Kansas Democrats to nominate another candidate—an order that the Democrats are almost certainly going to ignore.

Some keen observers of Kansas politics are perplexed by Kobach’s increasingly quixotic stand. “In a lot of ways it doesn’t make any sense,” says University of Kansas political science professor Burdett “Bird” Loomis. “He’s very ambitious, yet the more he carries on here, the more likely he is to lose his own re-election bid, given the perception of his partisanship in an office that’s historically been nonpartisan.”

Perhaps Kobach has squeezed everything he hoped to get out of the office of secretary of state. The tough voter ID law that he championed sailed through the conservative Kansas legislature and survived a challenge in federal district court. In August, Kobach defended the law before a panel of appeals court judges.

By risking his reelection chances in defense of an embattled Republican—with control of the Senate potentially at stake—Kobach furthers marks himself as a stalwart lone ranger in the mold of the filibustering senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Like them, Kobach “really likes to get into it,” Loomis says, “and may believe that any publicity, long-term, is good publicity” for a politician seeking a higher national profile. At a time when much of the GOP base—and much of the conservative media—puts a higher value on combat than on victory, it pays to be pugnacious.

In other words, Kobach may be trying to win by losing.

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