Kansas Republicans thought they had dodged a bullet when the so-called “establishment candidate,” Rep. Roger Marshall won the Senate primary against Kris Kobach, a Trump mini-me. But recent polls show that Marshall is in a dead heat with his opponent, Democrat Barbara Bollier.
Back in 2004, Thomas Frank put Kansas on the modern-day political map with his book titled, What’s the Matter With Kansas? In his telling, “conservatives won the heart of America” by convincing Kansans to vote against their own economic interests in an effort to defend traditional cultural values against the bicoastal elites. Does Frank’s analysis still apply?
We know that Trump’s Republican Party, now that it’s passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy, has no agenda other than the so-called “culture wars” against women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ Americans. That’s what animates the Republican base of nostalgia voters, including those in Kansas. It should have propelled Kobach to victory in the 2018 Kansas governor’s race. But it didn’t.
Prior to running as the Democratic nominee for Senate, Barbara Bollier was one of four Kansas state legislators who left the Republican Party back in early 2019. All four were women representing suburban districts just outside Kansas City, MO in the congressional district where Democrat Sharice Davids was elected in 2018. Explaining her decision to switch parties, Bollier said, “Conservatives, or the further-right faction of the Republican Party, have continued and continued and continued to try to force those of us of the moderate mind out of the party.”
With that kind of shift going on in Kansas suburbs, it is important to also take a look at what is happening in rural areas of the state. While anecdotal, journalist James Fallows and his wife Deborah spent some time in small-town western Kansas in 2016, where Hispanic immigrants now make up over half of the population. They asked everyone they met one question: “How has Kansas handled this shift in demography?” Here’s what they heard:
Every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it.
None of that means that Kansas is likely to go blue anytime soon. But Trump’s 20 point lead in the 2016 election is now down to just under nine points, according to the polling aggregate at FiveThirtyEight. But the major threat that has Kansas Republicans worried about the Senate race is that there are obviously voters who support the president, but plan to vote for Bollier. She captured some of that in a recent television ad.
That is not the kind of message that will please progressive Democrats, but it’s worth remembering that Kansas is the state that elected the first woman to serve a full term in the Senate without her husband having previously served in Congress. That would be Nancy Kassenbaum, a truly moderate Republican who held this Senate seat from 1978 to 1997. Kassenbaum recently endorsed Bollier saying, “I’ve known Barbara for many years, and she has the character, know-how, and compassion to represent all communities in our state.
As Burdett Loomis, Professor of Political Science at the College of Liberal Arts and Science, wrote, it is Marshall who is the true radical. Especially given that both candidates are doctors (Bollier an anesthesiologist and Marshall an OB-GYN), healthcare is a major issue in this race. Polls have shown that significant majorities of Kansans support the expansion of Medicaid. But Marshall fought hard for the repeal Obamacare in 2017 and continues to campaign on a “repeal and replace” health care platform, which he quotes the Bible to support.
Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us." There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves. Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care.
It is one thing to oppose Obamacare. But it should be offensive to anyone with an ounce of humanity for a politician to use the Bible to suggest that poor people just don’t want health care
This Senate race is rated “likely Republican” by both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Others that are more likely to flip and give Democrats a majority include the races in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Iowa, and North Carolina. But Bollier actually has a shot, which is astounding given that Kansans haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.