The Wild Kansas Senate Race

By Jim Ellis

July 21, 2020 — As we approach the Aug. 4 primaries, it’s clear that the Kansas Senate Republican primary will be the top attraction of that election day. An intra-party nomination clash in what should be a relatively safe open-seat campaign has devolved into a mixed-message political brawl.

Embattled Kansas Senate Republican candidate Kris Kobach

Just in the past month we’ve seen Democratic money coming into the Sunflower State in an attempt to influence the Republican primary, and national Republican money making an appearance trying to destroy the former GOP gubernatorial nominee. Furthermore, a well-healed third Republican candidate was being described as a multi-million dollar plumber who contributes more to Democrats. And, yesterday we saw a new ad with a candidate saying that it’s really “a badge of honor” that the Democrats are now attacking him because they’re afraid to face him in the general election.

When veteran Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced his retirement last year, 2018 gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach, fresh from running the disastrous Presidential Commission on Election Integrity that yielded no results before being disbanded, jumped into the Senate race. Because Kobach ran such a poor gubernatorial campaign and virtually handed the office to then-Democratic state senator Laura Kelly two years ago, Republican leaders were fearful of him becoming the Senate nominee. Democrats were also seeing early polling numbers indicating that they could beat Kobach while other Republicans were faring much better in general election ballot test pairings.

The prevailing thought remains that Kobach could lose to consensus Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier, but that US Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Great Bend) would be the clear favorite to hold the seat in November if he became the Republican nominee. Current polling isn’t making such a prediction, however.

Though there have been few polls released, the latest numbers we can see from May and June actually showed both Kobach and Marshall running about even with Bollier, a physician and party-switching state senator from Mission Hills. Therefore, regardless of how the Republican primary unfolds early next month, it appears we can expect a competitive general election.

Movement began when the party leadership attempted to persuade the long-shot candidates, like state Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) and Kansas Turnpike chairman and former Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Dave Lindstrom, to exit the race believing their exits would provide Marshall a one-on-one shot against Kobach and would be the best way to turn him away.

Sen. Wagle did withdraw, though it was presumably because she didn’t see a victory path for herself rather than yielding to the idea that Marshall needed a one-on-one shot. In fact, Kobach’s numbers actually improved when Wagle left the race because conservative supporters of hers then gravitated to Kobach. Therefore, the party leaders’ strategy in trying to provide a one-on-one race as a way to blunt Kobach’s candidacy may have been a miscalculation.

After Sen. Wagle departed, local plumbing company owner Bob Hamilton, who had been advertising his business in the Kansas City media market for decades, entered the race willing to spend several million dollars of his own money. He began aggressively advertising and seemed to be making progress to the point that Rep. Marshall had to divert his attention away from Kobach in order to stop a budding Hamilton surge.

While Hamilton appears less of a factor today, the primary race is far from settled, and the conflicting outside advertising has to be confusing many voters. Therefore, the ultimate outcome is unclear.

Earlier in July, as the primary race began hitting its prime time, a newly formed committee named the Plains PAC, with most of the money coming outside of Kansas and with clear ties to national Republicans, pledged to spend $3 million in the closing weeks of the campaign to derail Kobach.

Now entering the scene with enough money to counter Plains is the Sunflower State Super PAC with obvious ties to Democrats’ top Senate outside organization, the Senate Majority PAC. They are hitting Marshall as being part of the “DC swamp” and claiming that the congressman is weak on Trump, while saying Kobach is “too conservative, and won’t compromise on President Trump’s wall,” in an obvious attempt to lead more conservative voters to support Kobach.

Another outside group, this one with ties to national conservative leaders, is coming in with a late media buy to help Kobach. The Club for Growth, one of the premier outside organizations on the right was attacking Marshall early, but now has backed off fearing a worse outcome in the general election.

For her part, doing the right thing from a campaign perspective, Sen. Bollier, who is virtually unopposed in the Democratic primary remains basically quiet and running smaller media buys emphasizing her career as a physician and talking about healthcare reform.

It remains to be seen just how the mixed messaging affects the open GOP primary in the Sunflower State, but we’re about to find out. It does appear now, however, that regardless of the Aug. 4 primary outcome we will be seeing heaving competition here for the November election.

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