National Republican and Democratic groups are pouring millions of dollars into the Kansas Republican Senate primary, an effort to influence the race before the general election battle.
The money comes as some see vulnerability in the traditionally deep-red state. The last time Kansas sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate was in 1932, the same year Kansan Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean.
But Democrats see inroads this year with their candidate, Barbara Bollier, a state senator who was a member of the Republican party until she defected two years after the election of President Donald Trump.
Bollier has proven herself a powerful fundraiser. She raised over $7 million by the end of June and had more cash on hand at that point than the top three Republican candidates combined, according to campaign finance data from the Federal Election Commission. By contrast, Kris Kobach, the outspoken former secretary of state and most familiar name on the crowded Republican ticket, had raised just $828,000 and already spent most of it.
“Kansas is not as uniformly Republican as people think it is,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, noting the rise in Democratic turnout from suburban areas and smaller cities in the state. “The same trends affecting the country are affecting Kansas.”
Polls have shown Bollier within a competitive range of the top three Republican candidates: Kobach, Bob Hamilton, a plumber and political outsider who put $2 million of his own money in his campaign, and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN who represents the Big First district, the largely rural western half of the state.
Bollier campaign spokeswoman Alexandra De Luca said her campaign is poised to be competitive, regardless of the opponent.
“We are in an incredibly strong position for the general, given our unifying message, strong grassroots support and fundraising,” De Luca said. “To us it does not really matter who the Republican candidate is because Barbara is running a historic race.”
A poll in late May had Bollier one point ahead of Kobach and Hamilton and one point behind Marshall. Trump was 12 points ahead of Biden in the same poll. The Civiqs poll of 699 registered voters received a B/C grade from election analyst group FiveThirtyEight.
“The narrative about the race for most of the cycle has been that if Kobach wins, it is vulnerable for Democratic takeover, but that scenario might not be the only scenario in which the race is competitive,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the nonpartisan political analysis site, Inside Elections.
Inside Elections has listed the race as “leans Republican,” but Gonzales said it could change after the primary or if polling shows Trump struggling in the state.
“I think the nominee will matter. Kris Kobach makes the seat more vulnerable, but victory is not guaranteed for Republicans if Marshall or Hamilton win the nomination. Republicans are still going to have work to do,” Gonzales said.
Republicans are trying to avoid a repeat of the governor’s race in 2018, when Kobach — known for his fiery rhetoric and tough stance on immigration — won the primary but lost the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly.
“I’m out of the predictions business other than to say that if Kobach somehow slips through a primary … then he has every chance of not only putting the seat in danger but losing it outright,” said David Kensinger, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Sam Brownback who worked on campaigns for Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts.
“Anyone who thinks otherwise is whistling past the graveyard of the Senate majority,” Kensinger said.
Choosing their battles
Republicans say Democratic groups already are spending money in an apparent attempt to undermine Marshall in the Aug. 4 primary.
The Sunflower State Political Action Committee is running ads that call Marshall “a phony” who is “soft on Trump and weak on immigration” and portrays him as a “swamp creature” in D.C. The super PAC will not have to disclose its funding sources until after the primary, but the group uses a Democratic media firm.
“Dr. Marshall is being targeted by Democrat super PAC money for one reason: He’s the only Republican who can win in November, and Democrats are terrified of him,” said Marshall campaign manager Eric Pahls.
Sponsored content from the Kansas Democratic Party that criticizes Marshall comes up as the first result in a google search of Marshall, Kobach or Bollier’s names. It directs readers to a news article about how a personal connection helped Marshall reduce a misdemeanor driving conviction in 2008 to a less serious infraction, when he allegedly hit someone with his car.
National establishment Republicans largely stayed out of the race for months, but have gotten more involved in recent weeks. Roberts, the retiring senator, said on July 21 he would vote for Marshall, a shift from his previous position that he would remain neutral on the race.
A super PAC aligned with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also recently jumped in the race to buy positive television ads for Marshall, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed him.
Meanwhile, other conservative juggernauts that were critical of Marshall stepped out of the race. Club for Growth Action, which has mostly focused on races in support of conservative candidates, had gone after Marshall in Kansas earlier this summer. Their ads blasted him for “betraying Trump,” but the group suspended the campaign June 26.
“We continue to believe Rep. Marshall is not a strong pro-growth candidate. But the Club for Growth PAC is not endorsing in this race, and Club for Growth Action will be deploying resources in other critical House and Senate primaries,” said David Mcintosh, president of Club for Growth Action.
Marshall had an 87% score from Club for Growth this year in its annual grading of members of Congress on certain key votes. He ranked 74 out of the 435 members of Congress.
The average over Marshall’s three years in Congress was 69%, but that lifetime score was brought down by an unusually low score in 2018, largely due to his support for the farm bill and other related agriculture support measures. Club for Growth, staunch advocates for limited government, had targeted votes on those measures.
A shift in rhetoric
In the lead up to the Senate primary, Marshall has shifted some of his rhetoric, hardening on immigration and doubling down on his support for Trump.
“The primary focus of his shift was to really strongly play up his connections with Donald Trump,” said Russell Fox, a political analyst and professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita.
Marshall’s campaign literature is emblazoned with “TRUSTED BY TRUMP” and he has repeatedly told reporters he voted with Trump “98% of the time.”
Kobach characterizes it as insincere.
“I think his most recent statements … that make him sound like a conservative are simply him putting on a show to try to win the Republican primary,” Kobach said in an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast.
Kobach pointed to Marshall’s stance on immigration and his support for moderate Republican John Kasich early in the GOP presidential primaries. Marshall backed Trump once he secured the Republican nomination.
“On a host of issues, he’s got a very liberal record, but now he’s trying to sound like a conservative for the Republican primary. Voters know that I’ve always been conservative,” Kobach said.
Pahls, the campaign director for Marshall, said Marshall has “one of the more conservative records in Congress.”
“He’s also voted for the wall every single time it’s gone to the floor, and has co-sponsored bills to build it,” Pahls said. “If Kris thinks that’s a liberal record, he can take it up with the president.”
Outside experts agree there is not much that is liberal about Marshall’s record — even if he is not as outspoken as Kobach. Kobach’s political theatrics have included displaying replica assault weapons on his star-spangled Jeep in a community parade as part of his support for gun rights.
“He is not going to out-conservative Kobach on immigration or just about anything, but substance-wise Marshall has always been pretty conservative,” said KU’s Miller.
Marshall’s campaign platform backs Trump’s goal to build a wall and “fix our broken immigration system.”
His rhetoric on immigration was softer in previous years. In a 2017 speech to Wichita Republicans, he questioned the feasibility of the border wall and whether mass deportation could harm Kansas’s agricultural economy.
“I very much want to secure the border, but I’m not sure a wall’s the best way to do it. I don’t know if it’s even feasible,” Marshall said, in a Wichita Eagle report.
Marshall has been in this position before — trying to quietly appeal to conservatives over the noise of a brash opponent. He got to Congress by unseating Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative rabble-rouser who was rated the “least bipartisan member” of the House in a ranking from The Lugar Center and Georgetown University.
Marshall easily beat out Huelskamp to win the primary in a district that leans heavily conservative. His district tied for the 15th most Republican District in the nation in the 2016 Cook Partisan Voting Index.
“Marshall wants to portray himself as a Kobach who is not crazy, a Kobach who can actually win, so he cozies up to Trump and plays his conservative bonafides,” Fox said. “He is a mainstream conservative. That is kind of a difficult line for him to walk, but I think he has walked it relatively well, all things considered.”