U.S. House incumbents in Kansas spent $1.1M in tax dollars in 18 months to spread gospel

Democrats claim ‘hypocrisy’ given Marshall ripped GOP rival in 2016 for franking expenditures

U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, left, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, dramatically expanded reliance on taxpayer dollars to pay for communications with Kansans after U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts announced his retirement and Marshall launched his campaign to fill Roberts' shoes. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, left, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, dramatically expanded reliance on taxpayer dollars to pay for communications with Kansans after U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts announced his retirement and Marshall launched his campaign to fill Roberts' shoes. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican challenger Roger Marshall denounced incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp four years ago for relying on federal tax dollars to pay for mass communications aimed at potential voters in the 1st District in Kansas.

Marshall, who ended Huelskamp’s political career in that 2016 primary and went on to earn election to two terms in the U.S. House, warmed to the taxpayer-funded tactic of his former foe, especially as it became necessary to maneuver toward the U.S. Senate seat.

In the year before U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January 2019 his decision not to seek re-election, Marshall reported about a dozen publicly financed franked messages directed at his constituents in western Kansas. In the 18 months since Roberts ignited the 2020 scramble for his Senate seat, Marshall dipped into his congressional office budget to cover the cost of producing and transmitting around 75 unsolicited communiques to Kansans.

Marshall said in an interview that congressional office spending to print and circulate newsletters, distribute constituent surveys or sponsor online advertising was handled in compliance with federal law.

“My philosophy has always been if it’s gray, stay away. That’s what I tell my staff,” said Marshall, of Great Bend. “This is not something I micromanage on a day-to-day basis, but my name’s on the sign. I take responsibility for it.”

While the volume and pace of spending on franked messaging has grown for Marshall, he has been outspent by each of the three U.S. House members seeking re-election in Kansas.

During 2019 and the first half of 2020, Marshall allocated $145,000 in tax dollars to share information with people in his district. He earmarked $88,000 in 2019 and $57,000 through six months of this year.

Reeves Oyster, spokeswoman for the Kansas Democratic Party, said Marshall should offer “Kansans an explanation for exploiting their taxpayer money to fund his political ambitions.”

“Four years ago, he was complaining about his opponent using franked mail. Yet, today he’s spending tens of thousands of dollars doing the same,” Oyster said. “That’s blatant hypocrisy and cynicism.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, the 2nd District Republican who lost his August primary, led Kansas’ House delegation with $408,000 in franking expenditures since the start of 2019.

U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, the 4th District congressman from Wichita, relied on $354,000 in franked money to share his insights with voters. The state’s lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas City, Kansas and the 3rd District, spent $188,000 on franking in the period.

The combined incumbent advantage gained through franking expenditures of the four House members: $1.1 million. Estes, Davids and Marshall will be on November ballots.

Marshall won his crowded August primary to take the GOP nomination for the soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate. He’s in a tough campaign against Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, a well-financed state senator from Johnson County. Political action committees backing Bollier and Marshall have pledged to spend at least $7 million by Election Day on Nov. 3.

Franked communications by members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are supposed to be informational or educational, but the pitches often come across as little more than stealthy political advertisements.

In 2016, Huelskamp’s campaign for re-election to the U.S. House began to flounder after the Kansas Livestock Association and Kansas Contractors Association endorsed Marshall in the GOP primary.

Huelskamp used $64,000 in congressional office cash to send his constituents two glossy mailers that amounted to an abuse of “our trust” by “cheating taxpayers to bankroll dishonest mailers,” Marshall’s campaign said in a commercial rebutting Huelskamp’s messaging.

The most persistent appeal in Marshall’s taxpayer-paid communications during 2019 and 2020 has been praise for President Donald Trump’s immigration policy and backing for the president’s goal of building more wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

In addition to 13 advertisements or mailers about Trump’s immigration stance, a dozen franked communications from Marshall addressed the congressman’s opposition to abortion and 10 depicted his view of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

Marshall used his office budget for three constituent polls that concentrated on the representative’s job performance and record on abortion, immigration and guns.

Eight of Marshall’s messages sponsored by taxpayers expressed support for Trump during the 2019 impeachment proceeding. A couple messages focused on Marshall’s desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In addition, Marshall used franking dollars to pay $70,000 to a company owned by Jeff Roe, a leading Republican consultant who helped Marshall in 2016.