Two reasons Kansas’ beloved Bob Dole could not get elected as a Republican today

May 9, 2021 3:33 am

U.S. Sen. Bob Dole at a meeting with the Council of 100 and the National Black Republican Council in 1995. (Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Dole Institute of Politics)

Return for a moment to those halcyon political years when Republicans actually had a philosophy and when Kansas actually had a U.S. Senator who was concerned about — and worked for — Kansas people.

It was a time when a Republican U.S. Senator counted Black citizens as friends and worked to expand their rights.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas is a widely respected elder statesman. He is beloved by Republicans. Yet, Dole today could not be elected to any office in Kansas, even county attorney in his hometown of Russell.

His career is a tale of just how far Republicans have moved to the radical right and how dark the GOP has become.

Take civil rights. Building on Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen (it wasn’t), Republicans in at least 47 states have introduced nearly 400 bills that suppress the ability of Americans — especially minority voters — to cast ballots.

In Kansas, the Legislature passed election bills viewed as suppressing voter rights after overriding a veto by Gov. Laura Kelly.

Given Dole’s storied career, his friendship and association with Leroy Tombs of Bonner Springs is often overlooked. Tombs was a prominent Wyandotte County businessman and Black civic leader. He also was a Republican ally of Senator Dole. When Tombs died in 2006, Dole said: “Leroy was a longtime friend and supporter of mine. I can’t recall ever seeing Leroy when he was not smiling with a twinkle in his eye. We’ve lost a good man.”

Tombs was a regular at GOP Kansas Day activities where I became acquainted with him. On more than one occasion, Topeka’s Ramada Inn would confuse our last names and book us into the same room. While we waited for it to be sorted out, we would talk politics. He was effusive about Republicans and downright passionate about Dole.

In 2004, Tombs was interviewed for an oral history by the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He recalled the beginnings of his friendship with Dole:

“When I first met him, (he was) just bright eyed and (there) wasn’t much difference between our ages. I was fascinated with Bob Dole. When I heard him say let’s be more inclusive, let’s open up the base, broaden the base, those are the kind of things I liked.”

The association between Tombs and Dole caught the eye of national civil rights leaders hoping to pass a voting rights bill.

“So, the Black Caucus asked me if I would talk to Bob Dole about that,” said Tombs.

He asked Dole for his support. The senator’s response, perhaps astounding at the time, would be unthinkable from a Republican today.

“Bob took a look at the voters’ rights bill and said, ‘Leroy, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I’m embarrassed that you would need a voters’ rights bill. I am going to write one. …’  The Black Caucus had one I think for five or 10 years. Bob wrote one for the maximum, 25 years.”

Dole supported both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Although many of his constituents were vehemently opposed to both of those bills, Dole considers them to be two of the most important votes of his political career,” according to the Dole Institute.

Dole also co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act extension of 1982, which provided a 25-year renewal of the original legislation and strengthened prohibitions against voting discrimination based on race.

In his presidential campaign, Dole emphasized his civil rights record that included the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in 1996, Republicans were mostly uninterested in civil rights, a disinterest that has evolved today into downright hostility.

In fact, the defining test of being a Republican today is loyalty to Trump’s election lie and a pledge to curtail voting rights of minority Americans.

As CNN recently put it, the “GOP of Cheney, Bush and Romney feels like ancient history.”

Leroy Tombs, whose Republican senator once told him, “I’m embarrassed that you would need a voters’ rights bill,” no doubt would agree.

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Leroy Towns
Leroy Towns

Leroy Towns worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Kansas Harris Newspapers. He served as press secretary to Kansas Governor Robert Bennett and as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. He is a professor of the practice emeritus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he taught political reporting and political communication. A graduate of Kansas State University and the George Washington University, he is retired and splits his time between Manhattan, Kansas, and Florida.