2020 Primary Voters Guide: Kansas prepares for consequential Senate primary, general election

photo by: Associated Press

Senate candidates speak during a GOP senatorial debate In Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, May 23, 2020. They are Kris Kobach, left, Dr. Roger Marshall, center, and Bob Hamilton, right. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

It has been nearly 90 years since the state of Kansas elected a Democrat to the United States Senate.

But for months, political experts have speculated that 2020 could be the year that streak ends — depending on how the Republican primary shakes out.

Though more have filed, two leading contenders have emerged for August’s Republican primary — U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a physician from Great Bend, and Kris Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state.

Kobach has become a controversial firebrand even within his own party for his divisive views on voting and immigration policies, and some Republican leaders blame him for losing the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. That worry has continued into 2020, with many fearing that a Kobach victory in the Senate primary could lead to a similar result in the general election against Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist from Mission Hills who was a Republican until 2018.

But Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said it’s not as simple as saying that if Kobach wins the nomination, Republicans will lose the Senate seat.

“I think that it is largely a race that is about style and personality and perhaps electability. I think that Marshall has certainly made the argument that he is more electable and he has criticized Kobach for losing in 2018,” Miller said. “And I think the evidence somewhat supports that.”

The evidence only somewhat supports the stance that Marshall is more electable, Miller said, because there has been little polling conducted that pits both Marshall and Kobach against Bollier.

A National Republican Senatorial Committee poll in late May showed that Marshall led Bollier by 11 points, but he didn’t get substantially higher support numberswise. A Kobach candidacy just enticed more people to vote for Bollier, which brought them to a statistical tie.

And a Civiqs poll from early June, which pitted Bollier against Marshall, Kobach and Bob Hamilton, a self-funded political newcomer who has purchased substantial airtime already in Kansas, showed that Bollier was in a statistical tie with all three.

The Civiqs poll also asked Republican primary voters who they preferred, and Kobach led Marshall by 9% and Hamilton by 20%.

“So is it ‘Marshall or bust?’ Not necessarily,” Miller said. “It may be a tougher slog for Republicans, but again, Marshall doesn’t actually get higher support (than Kobach) necessarily.”

Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said there is little difference in the substantive policy positions of Kobach, Marshall and Hamilton.

“They are all running as very conservative Republicans who strongly support Donald Trump,” he said. “The main differences seem to be stylistically: Kobach argues he will shake things up in D.C., Marshall argues that he has a better chance of winning the general election and Hamilton argues he’s an outsider and option for those who don’t want what he calls ‘career politicians.'”

Indeed, little in the three main candidates’ policy stances actually differs. All voice strong support for anti-abortion policies, all tout pro-Second Amendment stances and all advocate for the securing of the U.S. border through a border wall, a policy often touted by Trump.

The main difference among the candidates appears to simply be how strongly and publicly they support Trump’s administration.

“We had a stretch where social issues seemed to dominate the campaign, but that period didn’t really show any disagreement between the Republicans on policy on gay rights, transgender rights or abortion,” Miller said. “It was more just ‘look at the endorsements I have and I’m so conservative on this.'”

Marshall has garnered high-profile endorsements since the campaign began, from such groups and people as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Kansans For Life, former Kansas Senator Bob Dole and former Kansas Congressman Kevin Yoder.

Kobach’s endorsements have been from smaller anti-abortion groups such as Kansas Coalition for Life and Operation Rescue, both of which are based in Wichita.

Whoever wins the Republican primary is sure to find an expensive general election waiting for them. Bollier, who is almost certain to be their opponent in November, recently raised more in a three-month period than any candidate in Kansas history for federal, state or local office, bringing in a whopping $3.7 million from April to June.

Kobach, meanwhile, raised about $232,000 during the second quarter of this year, and Marshall raised $462,000 in that time period, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Hamilton reported raising $1.5 million, but that money came out of his own pocket.

Trump himself could also be an obstacle for whoever the Republican nominee is. His approval rating in Kansas is currently at or just below 50%, around where it was in 2018 when Kobach lost the gubernatorial election by roughly five percentage points. While Trump wasn’t on the ballot two years ago, it does indicate a willingness of Kansas voters to buck the party line.

This isn’t to say that November’s general election will be easy for Bollier.

In national elections, it has been harder for Kansans to justify voting for the state’s minority party to go to Washington and deal with complex federal issues, Miller said. This helps explain the discrepancy between the state’s willingness to elect three Democratic governors in the last 25 years versus a Senate seat that has been solidly Republican for decades, he said.

“I think there are voters out there who are comfortable breaking from their partisan voting habits when they’re thinking about state-level issues that are a lot more apparent to them and they can see how they impact their lives,” he said. “I think Kobach could run just as bad of a campaign as he did for governor and still win the Senate race.”

Ultimately, the Aug. 4 primary will set up one of the more consequential elections in Kansas history — perhaps no matter who wins the Republican nomination.

“A lot of things would have to fall into place for Bollier to win,” Beatty said. “Probably some sort of national ‘blue wave,’ but it’s definitely possible.”

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