Avalanche of Kansas ads in GOP primary races ignore restraint

Kansas candidates for U.S. Senate and congressional seats during the primary ending Tuesday have produced a record number of TV commercials and flooded homes with direct-mail postcards that offer pointed commentary. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas candidates for U.S. Senate and congressional seats during the primary ending Tuesday have produced a record number of TV commercials and flooded homes with direct-mail postcards that offer pointed commentary. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Competitive Republican campaigns for U.S. Senate and House seats in Kansas have inspired an unprecedented candidate-fueled, PAC-reinforced barrage of advertising that blurs the boundary between edgy and toxic.

The 95 television commercials aired so far is a record for a GOP primary season. Political novice Bob Hamilton, who leapt from plumbing company owner to surprise Senate contender, stands at 19 ads, also an all-time high in Kansas. But the distinguishing feature of the Kansas races churning through millions of dollars is that the the heavyweights are embroiled in contests demonstrating a previously unmatched affinity for name-calling, exaggeration, dark humor, mockery and abuse.

“The ads this primary have taken a step. They’re more provocative. Or, some might say, offensive,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist who has compiled a campaign commercial archive documenting decades of Kansas political showdowns.

The 2020 version of the how-low-can-you-go limbo dance includes a colorful offering from Sunflower State PAC, which is tied to Democrats fond of attacking Senate candidate Roger Marshall: “The swamp creature. He’s at home in the D.C. swamp — not Kansas.”

The Plains PAC devoted to derailing Kris Kobach: “Why would Kris Kobach lose again in November? Let’s see, Kobach has strong ties to white nationalists. Kobach was pro-abortion before he was against it. And, he was passed over for a job in President Trump’s cabinet.”

Hamilton got into the act with an ad allowing his wife, Teresa, to offer an insider’s view of the candidate: “You hate Hillary and we can’t say what you say about Pelosi. These career politicians lying about you. One is a squish and the other couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”

In another Hamilton spot, he brags about being a supporter of President Donald Trump, promises to drain the swamp and proposes fortification of the border wall with Mexico to deter illegal immigrants.

“Electrify the wall,” Hamilton declares. “Quit crying liberals. It’s just a joke.”

Heartland PAC’s contribution, at the expense of congressional candidate Jake LaTurner: “Jake voted for the largest tax increase in Kansas history after he signed a pledge promising not to raise taxes. We call that a lie in Kansas.”

And, the Kansas PAC assault on U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins: “Disrespecting and ignoring the law is Steve Watkins’ specialty. Charged with three felonies, including voter fraud. Vote no on Steve ‘Above The Law’ Watkins.”

In the 3rd District congressional primary, GOP candidate Amanda Adkins, a protege of former Gov. Sam Brownback, dropped a commercial that bluntly characterized rival Sarah Hart Weir’s perspective on the Affordable Care Act signed into law a decade ago by President Barack Obama.

“Sara Hart Weir is lying about Obamacare,” Adkins’ ad says. “Why? Because Weir worked to elect a Pelosi-backed, Obamacare-supporting Democrat.”

At the close, Atkins says she approved the message because “Congress doesn’t have a clue and that’s about to change.”

Beatty, who teaches political science at Washburn University in Topeka, said attention to the 11-person U.S. Senate campaign from political action committees highlights the national value placed on the seat to be vacated by retiring Republican Pat Roberts. Interest in the GOP campaigns for Senate has historical roots because no Democrat has won a race for that job in Kansas since 1932.

In the three competitive Republican races for U.S. House seats, he said, the candidates and their allies have been willing to push the envelope in terms of deflating the foe.

Bill Clifford, a physician, Air Force veteran and Finney County commissioner, has taken aim at Tracey Mann, who served as Kansas’ lieutenant governor in 2018. Clifford’s ads accuse Mann of financially supporting “liberal Democrats” and supporting hundreds of millions in new state spending during tough times.

Mann responded by accusing Clifford of repeatedly increasing property taxes in Finney County and of voting to extend a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mann also pushed out commercials objecting to protests in other states about police shootings and promising to stand with Trump against the “liberal mob.”

Beatty said the emphasis on television advertising also may result from the COVID-19 pandemic undercutting candidates’ ability to spend six months to one year blanketing the state or district. The unwillingness of voters to attend public parades, debates or forums since the coronavirus took hold in March has restricted opportunities for candidates to make personal appeals.

There’s only one candidate for federal office in Kansas investing precious campaign resources on the nation’s most pressing issue — the mysterious virus that has killed 153,000 and infected 4.5 million Americans. Dennis Taylor, the long shot Republican candidate in the 2nd District congressional primary, has concentrated almost exclusively on the pandemic in his few campaign ads. His rivals, Watkins and LaTurner, have not bothered.

And, Beatty said, Taylor was a rarity for another reason.

“I’m the only candidate not speaking ill of other Republicans,” Taylor promised voters. “I’ve run a positive campaign, focused on what’s important to you — a plan to get us back to work and school, a plan to test, trace and isolate the virus, a pledge to give 50% of my paycheck to COVID-19 relief.”

Intensity of the campaign for U.S. Senate among Hamilton, Kobach and Marshall has drawn headlines and profound investment, but that GOP skirmish has left presumptive Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, a state senator from Johnson County, to work with a clean canvas. She can talk without interruption about bipartisanship and health care while calmly defining herself as a candidate.

“There’s a simple reason nothing gets done in Congress,” she said in a mid-July ad. “Everyone treats the other party like the enemy. I’m just not into the political fights that get us nowhere. I’m focused on the basics — your health care costs, your jobs.”