TOPEKA — A Democrat hasn’t won a U.S. Senate race in Kansas since the early days of the Great Depression.
took that economic crisis to propel George McGill, riding on Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal coattails, to a win. And he served but a single
This year, the country finds itself on the cusp of another
economic calamity. The COVID-19 epidemic sent the stock market into
convulsions, forced all range of business and campaigning into
hibernation and put life in limbo.
If the virus continues to
escalate across the country, and through Kansas, that might even
jeopardize how people in the state vote and how candidates might
What’s more, the man Republicans thought could
most easily hold the U.S. Senate seat that incumbent Pat Roberts is
walking away from has, finally, said he’s not interested.
has the GOP bracing for a bruising primary anchored within its
conservative wing — and debating who would run the greatest risk of
losing a seat the party’s long been able to take for granted.
Democrats, in turn, see at least a slugger’s chance of sending one of their own.
“It’s a long shot,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.
if an anti-Trump wave builds in the state’s suburban population
centers, he said, “Democrats want to have a candidate that can take
advantage of it.”
In 2016, Trump won Kansas by 21 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But several polls taken in the last two years and the election of Democrats to Congress and the governor’s office in 2018 suggest that a political shift is possible.
biggest factor could be who Republicans choose to take on likely
Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, a state senator from vote-rich
Johnson County. She defected from the Republican Party just last year.
leaders had pinned their hopes on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
He represented Wichita in the U.S. House before joining Trump’s cabinet.
But after equivocating for months, he decided not to run.
according to early polls, left former Kansas Secretary of State Kris
Kobach as the frontrunner. That’s got some Republicans nervous.
Their anxiety stems from Kobach’s loss to Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 governor’s race.
Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial
Committee, told Politico in July that a Kobach nomination would put the
party’s “Senate majority at risk.”
In the same article, Roberts said Kobach’s 2018 loss would make winning the Senate race “more difficult.”
U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall from western Kansas seizes on those concerns to advance his bid for the nomination.
Marshall says his internal polling suggests he’s got the best chance of winning the November general election.
shows us winning by 10 or 20 points while other people in this
(primary) race would be in jeopardy of losing,” Marshall said.
to Kobach’s 2018 loss, Marshall asks, “how does a Republican lose a
governor’s race in a state that President Trump carried by double
Republicans at the very top of the party share his
concerns, Marshall said. He said the issue of Kobach’s candidacy had
come up in meetings with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and President
“I always try to keep my consversations in the White House
very private,” Marshall said in a recent interview. “But I’ll tell you
this, the president is very concerned about keeping the Senate
Marshall, a retired doctor, represents the 1st Congressional District
covering roughly two-thirds of the state. He appears to be Kobach’s
chief rival for the nomination. Other candidates include Kansas Senate
President Susan Wagle and former Kansas City Chiefs player Dave
Kobach insists his two successful campaigns for secretary of state show that he can win a statewide general election.
“I will certainly win again,” Kobach said.
connection to Trump benefitted him in previous races. It was the
president’s last-minute Twitter endorsement that many believe helped him
narrowly defeat sitting Gov. Jeff Colyer in the 2018 gubernatorial
Kobach would like history to repeat, but he doesn’t sound confident when asked if he expects to have the president’s backing.
it’s always a great advantage to have the president’s endorsement, but
I’m not going to try to predict whether he’ll get involved,” Kobach
The concerns raised about his candidacy, he said, come from “establishment” Republicans who fear he’ll be too independent.
of the moderate establishment is uncomfortable with a strong
conservative in the Senate seat,” he said. “They would rather have
somebody who can be forced to compromise, somebody who doesn’t hold firm
Kobach is a polarizing figure. The same hardline
positions on immigration and ballot security that endear him to his
conservative base alienate moderates and independents.
has the opposite problem. Despite a voting record that he said aligns
with President Trump “98% of the time,” some conservatives remain
skeptical of him.
That doubt stems from Marshall’s 2016 primary win over Tim Huelskamp, an incumbent Tea Party favorite.
national conservative-leaning Club for Growth spent about $400,000 to
help Huelskamp. Some of that money paid for a TV ad calling Marshall “a
liberal backed by political insiders.”
The group is now working
to deny Marshall the U.S. Senate nomination. The Club for Growth
recently spent more than $30,000 to place full-page ads in several
newspapers that featured anonymous complaints from what it claimed were
some of Marshall’s former patients.
Eric Phals, Marshall’s campaign manager, called the ad “garbage” from a “dark money group out of the D.C. swamp.”
big-name Kansas Republicans are endorsing Marshall in an attempt to
head off a Kobach nomination. They include former Senator and 1996
presidential nominee Bob Dole and Colyer, the former governor defeated
by Kobach in the 2018 primary.
“He (Marshall) is a candidate that
I’m certain Republicans and all Kansans can get behind for the general
election,” Colyer said in endorsing Marshall at a recent news conference
Kansas Democrats believe a Kobach win in the August primary would boost their chances in November.
not entirely wishful thinking, said Michael Smith, an Emporia State
University political scientist. He said if Kobach is the Republican
nominee, the Senate race could play out much like the 2018 contest for
“A Democratic woman stressing moderate themes, health
care and good government defeating Kobach in the general election, it
happened in 2018 and it could happen again,” Smith wrote in a recent
column for Kansas outlets.
Bollier, the likely nominee and a retired doctor, who switched
parties last year. Touting her moderate credentials and “ability to
bridge partisan differences,” she raised more than $1 million during her
first three months on the campaign trail.
The people donating to
her campaign, Bollier said, “want to see a change in the kind of
leadership they have representing them in Washington.”
“They’re tired,” she said, “of bickering.”
McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a
collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public
Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their
connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email [email protected]