National Republicans say anti-immigrant hardliner Kris Kobach is now in a position to win the party’s Senate primary in Kansas on Tuesday, a result that would give Democrats a prime opportunity to pick up one of the nation’s most consistently GOP-held seats.
Kobach is neck-and-neck with Rep. Roger Marshall in Republican internal polls on the battle for the nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts. No Democrat has won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932, and overcoming that history could prove crucial to Democratic hopes of building a substantial and sustainable Senate majority.
Operatives in both parties say state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a one-time moderate Republican who switched parties in 2018 and is now the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, would have a clear shot at defeating Kobach ― who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. And they giver her a puncher’s chance against Marshall in a state that has rapidly become friendlier terrain for Democrats.
“It’s substantially better for Republicans if Marshall is the nominee,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “But because the primary is so late and it’s been competitive, the Democrat has run totally unopposed right up until [now]. No matter what the state looks like, if that’s the situation you’ve got to keep an eye on it.”
Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and has a deep war chest, said it is likely to invest in the state regardless of who wins the GOP primary. The pro-firearm control group Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also considering coming to Bollier’s aid after key Democratic victories in the state two years ago.
“I think Kansas is just a really different place politically than it was a couple of cycles ago,” said Charlie Kelly, the senior political advisor for Everytown. “Obviously the governor’s race” was an indicator of that in 2018, along with Democrat Sharice Davids capturing one of the state’s four House seats, he said.
What’s Gone Wrong For Republicans
The Republican nightmare in Kansas does not have a single cause. If Kobach manages to win Tuesday’s primary, it would be fair to blame Democratic interference in the campaign, venture capitalist Peter Thiel or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. All played key roles in helping Kobach rise to the top of a field of weak Republican candidates in the race for the open Senate seat.
But the ultimate blame may go to President Donald Trump, who has not only alienated voters in Kansas’ largest county and made Democratic statewide victories in this once bright-red state possible, but also resisted entreaties by GOP officials to take sides in the primary contest against Kobach. These Republicans have repeatedly argued to Trump that, as a Senate candidate, Kobach would let him down as he did when he lost the governor’s race despite the president’s endorsement. The most recent attempt, according to a GOP source with knowledge of the situation, took place last week and ended when Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, another strict conservative, reminded Trump during a trip on Air Force One that Marshall had endorsed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president in the 2016 primaries.
Trump was more helpful when Republicans were courting Pompeo, who previously represented the Wichita area in the House of Representatives, to run for the Senate seat. Senate Republicans argued to Pompeo that he would be better positioned for a 2024 presidential run if he joined the Senate, but Pompeo ultimately rebuffed their pleas. (Some Senate GOP operatives now jokingly refer to Pompeo as “Cyrus Vance,” “Warren Christopher” or other former secretaries of state who had little political impact after leaving office.)
Pompeo’s decision not to run left Republicans with a set of unattractive options around him to rally the anti-Kobach forces: Marshall, who started as the establishment favorite but has struggled to raise money; Dave Lindstrom, a former defensive end on the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs who has proved a poor fundraiser; or Bob Hamilton, a plumbing company owner with a scant political profile but a willingness to put millions of dollars of his own money into the race.
After looking closely at Hamilton, national Republicans opted to rally behind Marshall, who is more of a known entity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Bankers Association and the McConnell-controlled Senate Leadership Fund have collectively spent millions of dollars on ads supporting him and bashing Kobach.
In an odd couple pairing for the ages, it’s Schumer and Thiel who have teamed up to give Kobach the financial firepower necessary to fight back. Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire whose authoritarian and anti-immigrant views led him to donate handsomely to Trump four years ago, has given $850,000 to Free Forever, a group that has aired ads praising Kobach for his willingness to “reject the political correctness.”
But Thiel’s donations pale in comparison to the more than $4 million spent by Sunflower State PAC, a group with ties to national Democrats that won’t have reveal its donors until after the primary. Republican operatives all suspect Schumer’s political operation of running the PAC. The group has aired ads labeling Kobach as the “pro-Trump conservative leader” and slamming Marshall as a creature of Washington. Marshall is characterized as “right at home in Washington, D.C., a big spender of our tax dollars and a special interest lover.”
KANSAS: New ad from Democratic super-PAC intervening in Republican Senate primary refers to Kris Kobach as “the pro-Trump conservative leader” and Roger Marshall as “the swamp creature.” Mostly attacks Marshall. 7 days to primary. #kssen pic.twitter.com/VwDy8LQQB3
— Greg Giroux (@greggiroux) July 28, 2020
Republicans have gone up with their own ads painting Sunflower State as a Democrat plant and highlighting Marshall’s endorsement by former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole ― a venerated figure in the state. “Say no to the Democrats and yes to Roger Marshall,” the narrator instructs viewers at the end of a Senate Leadership Fund spot.
What’s Been Going Right For Democrats
As the Republicans have battled amongst themselves, Bollier has been free to raise money and stake a claim for the middle of the electorate. She has collected $7.8 million so far ― equal to two times as much as Kobach and Marshall have combined to raise ― and has $4.1 million on hand. She’s used the money to air ads with broadly appealing messages, highlighting her background as a doctor and promising to tackle surprise medical billing.
“None of my opponents bring something to the table like me: Sensibility, willingness to follow the facts, willingness to work across party lines,” Bollier told HuffPost in a phone interview earlier this year. “They’re all about divisiveness and their own ideology.”
Bollier switched parties in 2018 after she endorsed Kelly over Kobach in the governor’s race. She described a slow realization that she was no longer a Republican during GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2011-18 administration, which drastically cut education funding and pushed conservative positions on social issues.
EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, helped recruit her into the Senate race. And last week, she appeared at a digital event hosted by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who has emerged as one of the nation’s leading gun-control advocates since surviving a 2011 assassination attempt.
Major reasons persist for skepticism about Bollier’s viability: Trump won Kansas by 21 percentage points in 2016, and GOP Sen. Jerry Moran won reelection by 30 percentage points that same year. But Bollier and other Democrats are confident Joe Biden, their party’s presumed presidential nominee, can keep this year’s contest with Trump close enough for her to win. “Trump’s below 50% here,” Bollier said of his standing in some polls of Kansans.
Democratic hopes are fueled in large part by the political transformation of Johnson County, a diversifying and upscale suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. In 2016, GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder won the congressional district including Johnson County by an 11-point margin. In 2018, he lost it to Davids by nine points. The county is full of moderates who rebelled against Trump, Brownback and Kobach in the same way as Bollier.
“My values didn’t change, my votes didn’t change. The party changed,” she said.
Marshall represents Kansas’ 1st Congressional District, which sprawls over 69 counties and is heavily agricultural. While the district has historically produced senators ― both Moran and Dole represented the 1st District ― it’s a world away, both geographically and culturally, from Johnson County.
“When you talk to people about Kobach, there’s an immediate negative reaction to him,” said state Rep. Rui Xu, a Democrat who defeated a Republican incumbent in Johnson County in 2018. “But when you talk to people in my part of the state, there’s very, very little name recognition for Marshall.”
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