Opinion: Senate primary a missed opportunity

Elections work best when campaigns highlight policy contrasts for voters. As the Republican primary for Senate in Kansas closes, this election has been a missed opportunity to discuss policy and force candidates on record about their policy views.

On the issues that have received the most campaign attention, meaningful policy differences between the major Republican candidates — Bob Hamilton, Kris Kobach and Roger Marshall — just aren’t there. Abortion, LGBT rights, guns or masks, for example.

In focusing on areas of consensus, the campaign has missed an opportunity to actually clarify the choice for voters. What are candidate differences on other matters where past statements or actions suggest disagreement? Are there policy differences on issues that the campaign has not highlighted?

Many people thought Marshall was a moderate when he first went to Congress. He ousted ultra conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp in 2016. Many of the same folks who championed moderate Republicans in that year’s anti-Sam Brownback wave also reveled in Marshall’s win.

But Marshall has shown that he is more conservative than many thought. The most moderate thing about him may be that he seems a reliable vote for Republican leaders.

If most Republicans are supporting a compromise spending bill, for example, Marshall seems to follow leadership on those votes, rather than casting an ideological protest vote or opting for unrealistic conservative fiscal policy as many very conservative House Republicans sometimes do. This seems to be what earns Marshall his less than perfect ratings from groups like Club for Growth or American Conservative Union.

That is a substantive point that this campaign has glossed over. The D.C. Republican “establishment” prefers Marshall over Kobach, judging from statements and PAC spending. Would Kobach act differently from Marshall? Would he play nice with Republican leaders on fiscal votes and more, or would he be a conservative headache for them like Huelskamp often was?

Immigration is another area of potential difference that has been underplayed. This issue is central to Kobach’s brand. He is about as conservative on immigration as possible, and has been an immigration adviser to President Donald Trump.

In Congress, Marshall has supported Trump on immigration, but past statements suggest Marshall is more moderate here. Regarding undocumented immigrants, he told the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2015: “There has to be a pathway to at least have a job. I’m not ready to jump on the amnesty bandwagon just yet, but we need to find a way to get these people into the system.” Marshall added: “We make it so hard for good people to become citizens.”

This is a difference worth more attention than it has gotten, especially on a major issue that will outlast the Trump presidency.

Beyond that, think about all of the issues where this campaign hasn’t clearly explored candidate positions, especially for Kobach and Hamilton who lack legislative records. Russia. NATO. Free trade. Health care policy. COVID-19 policy. Numerous civil liberties issues. Energy. Platitudes aren’t policy.

It is unfortunate that this primary hasn’t treated Kansas voters to a deeper conversation about issues. Instead, we get sexy filler and symbolism. Did Marshall get special treatment from prosecutors in his 2008 conviction? Is Kobach electable or tied to white nationalists? Is Hamilton secretly pro-transgender? If you’re a Kansas Republican looking for more, don’t feel bad if you’re still hungry come primary day.

— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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