By Jim Ellis
June 1, 2020 — The open Kansas Senate race is more interesting this year than typical for what is normally a safe Republican state; in fact, it is becoming one of the most intriguing races in the country.Democrats believe they have a chance of stealing this contest if former Kansas secretary of state and 2018 defeated gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach were to win the GOP nomination. And it appears that early polling numbers and even the Kansas Republican Party chairman agree.
Things started to unravel back in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary when Kobach, then the sitting Kansas secretary of state, challenged Gov. Jeff Colyer in the party nominating contest and managed to beat him by 343 votes from more than 317,000 ballots cast. Colyer ascended to the governor’s office when elected incumbent Sam Brownback (R) resigned to accept a federal position.
The outcome split the already badly divided Kansas Republican Party – fragmented between moderates and conservatives – and coupled with a lackluster, while some say non-existent, Kobach general election gubernatorial campaign effort, Democrat Laura Kelly was able to win the statewide contest 48-43 percent with nine percent going to various minor party candidates.
Democrats are hyped because of that outcome, and Republicans clearly nervous. After months of speculation that US secretary of state and former Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo would leave his position and enter the Senate contest, the party leadership is now solidly coalescing around US Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Great Bend). Republican Party chairman Mike Kuckelman last week even publicly called upon all of the candidates beside Rep. Marshall to exit the race in order to give the congressman a one-on-one shot at denying Kobach the party nomination.
Yesterday, state Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) announced she would end her Senate quest, stating among other reasons that she did not want to split the party. Kuckelman believes that that crowded field would help Kobach win the nomination because he could do so with a plurality vote, fearing that his hard-right base may be enough to win a crowded field race.
Ironically, the candidate leaving the contest may have actually drawn votes away from Kobach because Wagle has strong appeal among conservative base voters. Remaining in the Senate contest to date – candidate filing closes June 1 – are Kobach and Marshall along with Kansas Turnpike Authority chairman and ex-Kansas City Chiefs football player Dave Lindstrom, with plumbing company owner Bob Hamilton who has advertised on Kansas City television for decades and has already put $2 million behind his political effort. Four other minor candidates may also qualify for the ballot.
Several things have recently changed. First, Rep. Marshall is proving to be a stronger candidate than some analysts and party leaders first judged, so the chances of Kobach winning the nomination and the perception of putting the seat in jeopardy are lessened.
Second, to underscore point one, the May Public Opinion Strategies Kansas Republican primary poll (May 10-12; 600 likely Kansas Republican primary voters) found Rep. Marshall surging ahead of Kobach, 40-26 percent, with Lindstrom recording 10 percent support.
Third, a new general election survey just released yesterday from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (May 17-19; 506 likely Kansas general election voters) that finds Rep. Marshall posting an eleven point, 46-35 percent, lead over consensus Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills state senator who is a former Republican. Conversely, and to give even further support to the argument that Marshall puts the seat to bed and Kobach endangers the outcome for the GOP, the latter man would only post a one-point margin over Sen. Bollier in the Republicans’ own poll, 44-43 percent.
Conversely, the Democrats are serious about contesting the state. Sen. Bollier is the top fundraiser in the campaign, raising over $3.4 million through March 31. This compares to $2 million for Rep. Marshall, while Kobach posted just under $600,000.
Already, state legislator and physician Bollier is using her financial advantage to begin media advertising, attempting to create the image that she is a centrist candidate concerned about Kansans’ health during this unprecedented modern pandemic.
The Kansas primary is Aug. 4, and it appears probable that we will see a great deal of important political action between now and then. This is one instance where the party primary will go a long way to determining the eventual general election outcome.