Republican Marshall prevails in bruising U.S. Senate race against Democrat Bollier

Out-of-state donations fuel record Kansas campaign with GOP control of Senate at stake

By: - November 3, 2020 11:00 pm

Roger Marshall thanks supporters on election night at the GOP watch party in downtown Topeka after defeating Democrat Barbara Bollier in the U.S. Senate race. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican Roger Marshall leveraged the conservative instincts of Kansas voters and an affinity for President Donald Trump to claim victory Tuesday night in the U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Barbara Bollier to determine a replacement for retiring Sen. Pat Roberts.

Marshall, who used his 1st District congressional seat as a launching platform, survived a crowded GOP primary against former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle before punching holes on abortion, guns and liberalism in the campaign of Bollier, a Republican-turned-Democrat from Johnson County.

“It’s a great honor, and a greater responsibility. We won’t let you down,” Marshall said. “I also want to thank every person who voted in this election, a record number of voters, regardless of who they voted for. Thank you for fulfilling your patriotic duty.”

He said he was committed to ending division and fighting without progress between political parties because the nation had too many challenges from Mother Nature and foes both foreign and domestic.

After trailing Bollier early, the incomplete and unofficial results showed Marshall with an advantage of more than 156,000 votes. He held an insurmountable 54% to 41% lead in what turned out to be the most expensive political campaign in Kansas history.

The late-night tally: Marshall, 691,340; Bollier, 534,807; and Libertarian candidate Jason Buckley, 63,260, or 5% of the 1.28 million votes counted statewide.

Bollier, a state senator from Mission Hills in Johnson County, entered a difficult race against Marshall in a red state carried with ease four years ago by Trump. The president won the state again in 2020.

National implications of Kansas’ contest for U.S. Senate attracted an estimated $40 million in dark money spending and pushed $30 million into campaign coffers of Marshall and Bollier. However, Bollier shockingly generated four times the funding corralled by Marshall, who is from Great Bend.

Around 10 p.m., Bollier called Marshall to concede the race.

“Of course,” Bollier said, “this wasn’t the finale we hoped for. But at  time of deep national cynicism, when faith in our democratic institutions hangs by a thread, I consider it a sacred, patriotic duty to accept tonight’s outcome. I invite my supporters to join me in acknowledging our new senator and to celebrate the freedom we had to make our case in this campaign.”

She also said her finest moment wasn’t defined by what was accomplished, but how it was done.

“There is no substitute for honesty and integrity, and these values fueled our race until the end. No matter how deceptive the avalanche of attacks became, we remained motivated by the solution — not the fight. This is what enables me to cross the finish line with no regrets, a sense of peace, and a well of pride.”

Marshall never wavered from his support for Trump, and leaned into endorsements from Roberts, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole. Bollier vowed during the campaign to be an independent senator who respected ideas from Republican and Democratic colleagues.

Gov. Laura Kelly also recognized Marshall’s victory by pledging her administration’s support in advocating for Kansas.


Red-state barn burner

Bollier and Roger both graduated from University of Kansas’ medical school, built careers as physicians in Kansas and ended up on the same red-state U.S. Senate ballot in a campaign overshawdowed by coronavirus.

They unexpectedly became featured players in the most expensive political contest in Kansas history. Campaign finance reports say they combined to raise at least $30.5 million. That would form a strip of $100 dollar bills laid end-to-end from Salina to Abilene, with several million dollars to spare. And the total excludes as much as $40 million in dark money pouring into the Kansas showdown, which became a second-tier thriller in the larger national struggle for operational control of the U.S. Senate.

All that cash bought the Kansas Republican and Democratic nominees a tidal waive of advertising and mailers. Some of the messaging was self-congratulatory, but the bulk was designed to attack and conquer. Bollier was effectively labeled an “abortion fanatic.” The idea was planted in voters’ minds Marshall was “deceptive” and “got caught lying.” Bollier was “extreme” on gun control, while Marshall engaged in “shady” hospital investments. Bollier would be a puppet of socialists in Washington, D.C., and Marshall a hack for interests willing to harm Kansans by repealing the Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, said she would object to reform of Social Security that cuts benefits to Americans. U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, the GOP nominee for Senate, supports Social Security reform applicable to people at least 10 years away from retirement. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a retired physician from Mission Hills in Johnson County, seeks to become the first Democrat from Kansas elected to the U.S. Senate since 1932 and the first woman doctor elected to the U.S. Senate. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The solid work and advocacy of the Mission Hills Democrat in the Kansas Legislature and of the Great Bend Republican in the U.S. House was lost amid all that shouting.

The toxic cloud got so thick folks rarely noticed a third person in the race, the Libertarian Party nominee. Buckley is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Overland Park and works as an IT contractor in the banking industry. He’ll get a slice of the vote, perhaps several percentage points.

“I am running for Senate because I believe no other U.S. senator or Senate candidate has ever understood that the government belongs to people. And, we are not government property,” Buckley said. “The purpose of government is to protect our rights. All people should be able to live their life however they choose as long as those choices don’t hurt others and don’t steal their property.”

Casting of votes in the Senate contest began in mid-October and comes to a close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. There will be an unofficial tally on election night, but final results won’t be affirmed for days. Polling indicated a close race for the seat being vacated by retiring four-term U.S. Sen. Roberts. The Bollier and Marshall campaigns have weighed contingency plans if the margin was narrow. A Kansas recount is a possibility, especially if the balance of power in the U.S. Senate was still in play.

Such a competitive race for U.S. Senate in Kansas was inconceivable in 2016 after Trump dismantled Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. In the past 25 years, no Democratic Senate candidate in Kansas has surpassed 44% in the general election.


Bollier’s closing

Bollier, 62, anchored her campaign with a pledge to fight for better access to affordable health care and to continue her commitment to quality public education. She promised to be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate and work on a bipartisan basis with her colleagues. A Republican for four decades, Bollier changed her party affiliation to Democrat in 2018.

During the campaign, Bollier accused Marshall of running a private, for-profit hospital in Great Bend that contributed to closure of the community’s nonprofit hospital. She accused Marshall of pushing legislation beneficial to his family’s investment interests in health care rather than seeking bipartisan reforms to support rural hospitals. She said he sided with business and political interests keen to discriminate against the 400,000 Kansans with a pre-existing medical condition.

U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier, a state senator from Mission Hills, says she will be an independent voice for Kansas in Washington, D.C. and a keen advocate for greater access to affordable health care. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier, a state senator from Mission Hills, says she will be an independent voice for Kansas in Washington, D.C. and a keen advocate for greater access to affordable health care. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“Kansas hasn’t elected a Democart to the Senate in 88 years,” said Bollier, who sought to be the first woman doctor elected to the U.S. Senate. “This election, we’re not just making history. We’re fighting for affordable health care, working toward unity and bringing along integrity.”

She didn’t complain relentlessly about Marshall’s affinity for Trump, given the GOP president’s standing in Kansas.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Bollier’s campaign for the Senate.

“Barbara has the character, know how and compassion to represent all communities in our state,” Kassebaum said. “Above all, Barbara shares my belief in working with members of both parties to solve problems and get things done. I believe achieving bipartisanship and cooperation in the U.S. Senate is still possible.”

Sebelius, who served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, said the U.S. Senate required people who understood and respected the science of public health.

“Not just to get through this pandemic, but to deal with climate change,” Sebelius said. “There has never been a better time to have a candidate like Barbara Bollier.”

Bollier, who was elected to the Kansas House in 2010 and the Kansas Senate in 2016, had token opposition in the August primary. She raised an astonishing $13.5 million in the third quarter of 2020, and $24.4 million during her campaign for the Senate. In contrast, Marshall’s finance reports show he attracted $5.9 million in contributions for his Senate bid.


Marshall’s pitch

Marshall, 60, said Kansans would be mistaken to swallow the fiction of Bollier as a political moderate. He said the Democratic nominee would oppose conservative appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court, gave every indication she supported late-term abortions, would side with Democrats intent on raising taxes and would fall in line behind Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.

Marshall, who has represented the largely rural 1st District in Congress since 2017, said Bollier was out of touch with common-sense Kansans. He pointed to her praise of strict Australian laws that forced owners of 700,000 guns to sell them to the government in the 1990s. He said she wasn’t capable of understanding needs of the dominant industry of agriculture.

“Barbara Bollier pretends to be a moderate, an independent,” Marshall said. “She calls confiscating weapons an ‘amazing thing.’ She believes and supports late-term abortion. She wants to give Supreme Court justices a religious test. She’s too extreme for Kansas.”

U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, Kansas Republicans, joined with former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole to endorse GOP U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall for Roberts' seat in the U.S. Senate. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, Kansas Republicans, joined with former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole to endorse GOP U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall for Roberts’ seat in the U.S. Senate. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Marshall is intrinsically tied to Trump in terms of COVID-19 — mirroring the president’s views on wearing a mask during the pandemic, taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus and urging businesses to stay open despite risk of a virus that has killed more than 1,000 Kansans. The president’s popularity has waned since 2016, but his coattails remain long. There’s little doubt Kansas will support Trump’s re-election.

U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roberts, both Repubicans, and former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole endorsed Marshall’s candidacy. Marshall survived a crowded GOP primary in August, with assistance from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which openly sought to derail the campaign for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Marshall earned 40% of the primary vote while losing only one county west of Emporia and racking up a double-digit advantage in populous Sedgwick County.

“It is more important than ever that Republicans maintain the majority in the U.S. Senate,” said Moran, a reflection of apprehension Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could beat Trump. “A Republican Senate stands as a firewall to stop damaging liberal and socialist policies from becoming law.”

Dole, the 97-year-old native of Russell, began representing Kansans in Washington 60 years ago and was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 1996.

“I know Dr. Roger Marshall,” Dole said. “And I trust him. He will continue our state’s proud tradition of common sense leadership and results. This race presents as clear a contrast as any I’ve seen.”

Roberts, who declined to seek re-election in 2020, offered this closing advice: “Take it from Bob, and vote for Roger.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.