LAWRENCE — Democrat Barbara Bollier’s early deployment of U.S. Senate campaign commercials highlighting endorsements from Republican politicians rattled supporters of GOP nominee Roger Marshall.
Bollier campaign manager Max Glass said the advertisements were designed to provide Republican voters with permission to feel like they could help Bollier without compromising their values. It was an essential feature of an attempt by the state senator from Johnson County to become the first Kansas Democrat to win election to the U.S. Senate since the Great Depression.
Marshall campaign manager Eric Pahls said Bollier’s compilation of GOP endorsements, which included former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, startled Republicans who assumed the campaign was over after Marshall dispatched Kris Kobach, Bob Hamilton and eight others in the August primary.
“They started with those ads with legislators who were also ranchers endorsing her,” Pahls said. “That certainty panicked a lot of people early. It helped her in the polls early. A lot of Republicans looked at that and it caught their attention in a we-need-to-get-involved way.”
Pahls, interviewed along with Glass by the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence for an 11-part series of campaign flashbacks, said Bollier’s scheme to enlist Republicans to portray her as bipartisan was a frustrating but sensational way to kick off the general election. Her incursion into GOP territory was blunted, Pahls said, when former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole threw his weight behind Marshall. It was no surprise. Dole did the same in 2016 to help Marshall win his first campaign for U.S. House by defeating GOP incumbent Rep. Tim Huelskamp.
Glass said in retrospect the campaign’s attempts to personalize Bollier for audiences unfamiliar with the Republican-turned-Democrat was unlikely to convince tens of thousands of people to think differently about her. He said the partisan firewall maintained by Republicans in much of the state demonstrated it could be impossible for any Kansas Democratic candidate to prevail in a U.S. Senate race.
“I think it’s an open question whether anything we did in the campaign actually helped,” said Glass, a native of Virginia who has worked on campaigns for 12 years. “It’s just so baked in. Republican-identified voters were so regimented in how they voted top to bottom on the ballot. Republicans have every advantage. Every advantage conceivable.”
That was reality for Bollier despite raising a record $28 million in direct contributions. Marshall’s campaign generated $6.9 million in direct donations. Outside political organizations easily doubled that investment in the campaign.
Polling repeatedly showed the Kansas contest could be close, and with control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs, money poured in to influence selection of a replacement for retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.
Marshall relied on geographic, ideological and biographic advantages to win the August primary and November election. In both, Marshall was able to surge to double-digit margins. He prevailed in the primary by 14 percentage points. On Nov. 3, Marshall ran away with the election by earning 53.2% of the vote to Bollier’s 41.8% and Libertarian Jason Buckley’s 5%.
Marshall touted his affinity for President Donald Trump, flashed credentials of an Army veteran, spoke about his career as a physician opposed to abortion and worked to move the needle with a 100,000-plus door-knocking effort in the year of COVID-19. With Trump’s help, the Marshall campaign convinced Club for Growth to call off a $2.5 million attack effort against him. Kobach and others tried to portray Marshall as a soft conservative, but Marshall exploited Kobach’s indifference to fundraising and organizational infrastructure. Hamilton had amusing self-financed ads, but his lack of public policy chops was exposed.
Pahls said Marshall subsequently slashed into Bollier’s record of legislative votes supporting abortion rights. Marshall welcomed her gift of a bizarre hot-microphone comment praising government seizure of guns.
Marshall’s campaign was able to make Bollier look more liberal than Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, a tactic aimed to inflame the spectrum of Republican and independent voters.
Bollier’s allies attempted to frame Marshall as a greedy Washington, D.C., swamp creature too easily placed under the thumb of Republican Party bosses, Glass said. Bollier’s core message on TV was designed to persuade voters she was an independent eager to serve all Kansans. She banked on doing well in the Kansas City area while making inroads into Sedgwick, Crawford, Ellis, Saline and Ford counties.
She had the firepower of unprecedented campaign contributions, but the race ended with her 150,000 votes shy of Marshall.
Marshall, who eagerly joined the Senate’s “stop the steal” effort last week against President-elect Joe Biden, made the leap from the 1st District congressional seat to the Senate. He followed in the footsteps of Kansas GOP congressmen Pat Roberts, Jerry Moran and Dole.
“The Big First tends to create senators,” Pahls said. “That is because it is not only a very loyal electorate, but there is no population center out there. It’s very hard to break into the 1st District. It’s a retail politics area.”
GOP’s political gravity
Pahls, who grew up in Beloit and graduated from the University of Kansas, said the basic strategy was to hold Marshall’s grip on western Kansas and the Wichita market. He would then use TV to spread his gospel and swing the state’s GOP voter registration advantage like a sledgehammer against Bollier. It worked despite being outspent 4-to-1 and the presence of campaign polls that put Marshall’s campaign on edge.
“The laws of political gravity still apply,” Pahls said. “It shows you that Kansas is still Kansas. In a race that was supposed to be incredibly close — both in the primary and in the general. Neither ended close.”
Glass and Pahls agreed Bollier would have had a better shot against Kobach, the Republican and former Kansas secretary of state who lost the 2018 campaign for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly. Pahls said pundits and pollsters were universally convinced the nomination of Kobach by Republicans would have improved Democrats’ opportunity to flip the Senate seat in Kansas.
“Of course. Of course,” Glass said. “The guy’s a national lightning rod. We ended up raising $28 million total, but you’ve got to wonder how much money we would have been able to raise if Kobach had actually been the nominee.”
Pahls and Glass said broadcast debates were interesting to political insiders and perhaps a source of raw pleasure for folks drawn to the rowdy Kansas State Fair debates in Hutchinson. But, they agreed, these think-on-your-feet events were generally viewed as inconsequential to election outcomes.
Pahls said debates in U.S. Senate races were watched by a “handful of people” and great performances were rarely noticed by anyone outside of campaign organizations. However, he said, Bollier’s debate flubs late in the campaign were used in attack ads.
Glass said debates did little more than give reporters a chance to take the temperature of the evolving horserace.
“It gives people something to talk about,” Glass said, “but I don’t think it actually changes votes. I don’t think people pay much attention to them, especially once you get past the presidential level.”
‘Not who she was’
Marshall and Bollier had to deal with inevitable attack ads, but toxic messaging appeared to have a greater impact on Bollier.
Glass said his candidate, Bollier, was hurt by commercials and direct mailers that appealed to pro-lifers. Ads defining Bollier as weak on the Second Amendment were a blow, Glass said, because they helped break down the permission structure the Democrat’s campaign had been sewing for GOP voters. In addition, Pahls said, Marshall was able to cast doubt on Bollier’s claim to be a moderate when her record was that of a liberal out of step with most Kansans.
“The only bipartisan thing about her service was that when she was registered as a Republican she voted with the Democrats,” said Pahls, who asserted voters concluded Bollier’s record didn’t match her glossy commercials. “There wasn’t an issue in which she was conservative.”
Put more bluntly, Pahls said: “We were able to demonstrate … that the person we were running against was not who she was campaigning as.”
Glass said the Bollier campaign considered Marshall a “weak candidate” compared to other Republican Senate nominees across the country. He said Marshall didn’t appear to have a consolidated game plan, lacked discipline in his communications and stumbled with social media. He also said Marshall came across as someone who could be easily provoked by a rival.
Glass said Bollier and her allies attacked Marshall for a criminal incident of alleged road rage in Great Bend and about the sale of a hospital Marshall helped launch there. Both issues appeared ripe for exploitation, and were the source of scorched-earth ads against the Republican, but voters chose to overlook personal stuff about Marshall, Glass said.
Glass said the Bollier campaign never saw a poll that had Marshall below 45%, which proved ominous given Bollier failed to top 42% in the general election.
Bollier’s campaign team was anxious about what would happen when she demonstrated to a national audience the Kansas race for U.S. Senate could be competitive, Glass said. In other words, he said, Bollier’s success would convince the political committee controlled by U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other deep-pocket GOP organizations to pivot resources to protect Roberts’ seat. And those groups eventually dumped millions of dollars into the Kansas election.
“Republicans were really smart in the approach they took of waiting, waiting, waiting,” Glass said. “When it got down to the last two weeks of the campaign, that permission structure started to break down.”
Pahls and Glass said the two candidates invested as much as possible in television, which neither regretted. Pahls complained Bollier could run three commercials to Marshall’s one in the major TV markets. Glass said that if he had something to do over, he would recommend Bollier invest more in direct mail because advocates for Marshall sent out about three times the mailers as Bollier.
In addition, Glass said, the Bollier campaign had no budget for door-to-door campaigning and began conducting the campaign remotely in March as COVID-19 flourished. They attacked Marshall for flouting U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and thought it was a winning issue after a poll revealed 75% of Kansas voters supported masks and social distancing.
“At the end of the campaign,” Glass said, “Kansans didn’t care at all. Kansas felt the pandemic was over.”
He said it would have been better for Bollier to emphasize general health care reform and offer a clear economic message rather than cling to the COVID-19 thread.
Glass said he was surprised by the 12.4% margin of victory by Marshall, and he speculated polling companies had missed a layer of support for Trump and Marshall. The discipline of GOP voters was impressive, he said. He said the persistent theory that Kansas was in the middle of a toss-up race did offer financial benefits to Bollier’s campaign. It proved difficult to spend $28 million, he said.
“It was shocking that the margin was as wide as it was,” Glass said. “Frankly, if they had had realistic (polling) numbers, nobody would have even talked to our campaign. We would have never been seen as competitive.”
He recommended Kansas Democrats do more in the future to regularly engage voters in what would look like a permanent campaign operation. He suggested the Democratic Party try to break down barriers with voters through door-to-door efforts that could be centered around urging people to get flu shots or to participate in community activities.
Pahls said Bollier was a recipient of a “ridiculous” amount of financial support from Democrats, which should serve as a lesson for Republicans going forward. He pointed to the influence of contributions from ActBlue, a nonprofit organization that enables left-leaning nonprofits, Democratic candidates and progressive groups to raise money for individual candidates online. The comparable GOP version is WinRed.
“Republicans have got to figure out, and it’s starting to happen, how to counter the ActBlue phenomenon,” Pahls said. “WinRed, which is the Republican’s answer to that, was a tremendous tool in our primary and general, but the national money machine that the Democrats can crank up … that’s unrivaled right now.”