Kansas Republicans will head to the polls on Tuesday to select their nominee for U.S. Senate after longtime GOP Sen. Pat Roberts announced that he would not seek re-election. Both privately and publicly, Republicans are already dreading the results. The candidates for the Republican nomination include former Secretary of State Kris Kobach — who lost the race for governor in 2018 to Democrat Laura Kelly, GOP Rep. Roger Marshall — who represents the solidly red 1st District, and businessman Bob Hamilton — a political novice who has self-funded most of his campaign. National Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, lobbied for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to enter the race, but to no avail. Kansas State Senate President Susan Wagle was also a leading contender but withdrew from the race shortly before the end of the qualifying period. The winner of Tuesday’s contest will likely face Barbara Bollier (D), a State Senator from suburban Johnson County who left the Republican Party following the 2018 elections.
Dreading a Kobach Nomination
Polling of the Republican primary has been limited, but most Republicans expect the primary to come down to wire. Privately, Republicans have voiced concerns that a Kobach nomination would only further complicate their path to retaining a majority in the U.S. Senate. Kobach, who is known for his anti-immigration stances and famously led Trump’s commission to investigate voter fraud after the 2016 election, was the GOP nominee for governor in 2018. In the Republican primary, he ran against incumbent GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer, who ascended to the office after Gov. Sam Brownback joined the Trump administration. Kobach narrowly defeated Colyer in the Republican primary following a late endorsement from President Trump, but went on to lose the general election to Laura Kelly (D), a State Senator from Topeka. Making matters worse: Democrats have made it clear that they want to run against Kobach and several Democratic outside groups have been running ads in Kansas on Kobach’s behalf, a tactic famously used by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in the 2012 Missouri Senate race.
Their Last Hope
Republican leaders have encouraged Trump to make a late endorsement of Rep. Roger Marshall, but he has shown signs of getting off of the sidelines in this primary. Marshall is an obstetrician who represents what locals call “The Big First”, the largest district in the state by geography. Located in western Kansas, the district includes all or parts of 63 counties. Both of the state’s current Senators, Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, represented the 1st District prior to being elected to the Senate. Marshall was elected to Congress in 2016. He ran in the Republican primary against incumbent GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp. Marshall won the backing of several agricultural groups, who were angry at Huelskamp after he lost his spot on the Agriculture Committee. “For at least a century, the agriculture committee had included a member of Congress from the state [of Kansas],” according to McClatchy DC. Marshall defeated Huelskamp in the primary by a 12-point margin, essentially becoming Congressman-elect in this solidly red seat. In his Senate campaign, he has sought to earn endorsements from the Kansas GOP establishment. He has been endorsed by former Gov. Jeff Colyer, Sen. Pat Roberts, former Rep. Kevin Yoder former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole — the 1996 Republican nominee for President. He has also been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee, according to his campaign website. As an OB/GYN, Marshall frequently touts his pro-life views and has promised to fight hard to protect the unborn. National Republicans have feared that Marshall’s advantage in the polls may be fading, thanks in no small part to Democratic outside groups meddling in the race. A poll obtained by Politico found Marshall with a lead of just 3 points, 33% to 30% for Kobach. Republicans have grown frustrated by Trump’s refusal to endorse Marshall, arguing that he is more electable than Kobach. In a conversation first reported by CNN, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) advised the President against endorsing Marshall in a conversation aboard Air Force One, noting that Marshall supported frequent Trump critic John Kasich in the 2016 presidential primary. Trump responded by saying that he would not endorse any of the candidates in the race.
A big wildcard in the race is businessman Bob Hamilton. A plumber from the Kansas City area, Hamilton has self-funded most of his campaign and has ran ads aimed mostly at Marshall. Though Hamilton has not been polling high enough to be in contention for the nomination, he could be in a position to cost either Marshall or Kobach a victory on Tuesday.
The winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary will likely face Democratic State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a physician from Johnson County and a former Republican who switched parties in 2018. She endorsed Laura Kelly over Kris Kobach in the 2018 governor race and was essentially banished from the Republican Party as a result, losing all of her committee assignments. After the election, she was the first of three female Republican legislators from the Kansas City area to switch to the Democratic Party, according to Kansas City Star reporter Bryan Lowry. “Morally, the [Republican] party is not going where my compass resides,” she said in her announcement. She said that her “breaking point” was when the Kansas Republican Party included anti-transgender language in the state party platform. In October 2019, she announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate and was endorsed by several Democratic heavyweights, including the DSCC, Gov. Laura Kelly and former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She has bult a sizable fundraising lead over her Republican rivals. According to FEC filings, Bollier raised $3.7 million in the second quarter of 2020. In the same period, Kobach raised $233,000, Marshall raised $477,000 and Hamilton raised $1.5 million, most of which was personal loans to his campaign. The winner of Tuesday’s Republican runoff will have to quickly pivot from the resource-draining primary to the expensive general election, for which Bollier has already built up a significant fundraising warchest.
It’s safe to say that Kansas is not a state that should not be a state with a potentially competitive U.S. Senate race. Only once since 1996 has a GOP presidential nominee won Kansas by less than 20 percentage points: John McCain in 2008. And the state has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since the 1930s — the longest streak of any state. Though the state has shown a tendency to be competitive in state level races. The last time a Kansas governor was elected to succeed a member of his or her party was in the 1960s. But Republicans are both privately and publicly dreading a potential Kobach nomination. And while Marshall is seen as more electable by both Republicans and Democrats, he will still have to compete with Bollier’s huge fundraising advantage. Kansas doesn’t have competitive Senate races often, but this year could provide us with a rare exception.