The open Kansas Senate race was never supposed to be competitive for Democrats. But given what an unusual year 2020 is shaping up to be, it’s a dead heat.
The two candidates in contention are Democrat Barbara Bollier, a state senator and former doctor, and Republican Rep. Roger Marshall, who is also a doctor and OB-GYN. Bollier has only been a Democrat for a few years; she was a longtime moderate Republican in the state before switching parties in 2018.
“Over time, as a person identifying as a moderate Republican, I found myself constantly at odds with our Republican leadership in Kansas,” Bollier told Vox in a recent interview. When Bollier’s former state Senate colleague Laura Kelly, a Democrat, won the governor’s race in 2018, Bollier said her decision was sealed.
“Once that happened, for me it just became clear — I needed to move on,” she said. “I had tried for all these years to help move the [Republican] party to a more central position, and it was failing.”
The 2020 election is a good test of whether moderates or conservatives will prevail in Kansas, a deeply red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the US Senate in close to 90 years. Kansas may be Republican, but political observers in the state say it’s pretty evenly split between moderate and conservative Republicans. With a good public higher education system, Kansas has a relatively high number of college-educated voters in its suburbs. President Donald Trump’s approval rating isn’t as high there as it is in Rust Belt states like Kentucky and West Virginia.
“I think a lot of people underestimate it when really so much of the story of what’s going in Kansas is a state that is rapidly shifting away from the Republican Party, or at least from Donald Trump’s version of it,” said a senior Democratic strategist.
This race will still be very tough for Bollier to pull off. Vox recently interviewed Bollier about how she’s planning to do so (hint: health care has a lot to do with it), why she switched parties, and what she thinks is the future of moderate Republicans under Trump.
In 2018, Democrats won a key Kansas House race, Laura Kelly won the governor’s race. What do you think accounts for this increased Democratic energy in a traditionally conservative state like Kansas?
Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier
I think people interpreted that because many Republicans have been elected over time, that it’s a red state. The reality is, the Democrats are their party, and the Republicans are a divided party — they have conservatives and moderates. If you take the moderate wing of the Republicans and add it to the Democratic set of voters, you get a majority.
That’s different than what it appears like on paper when you just look at “red.” The majority of the state is registered Republican, but they represent a different value system; they look at things differently. That’s been a challenge for the Republican Party and continues to. When you have seen people like me, who realized that the values of the Kansans they represent just weren’t being followed. From the Brownback tax experiment, to not funding our schools, to taking away local control, to not expanding Medicaid. That doesn’t fit in with the majority of Kansans’ values. So the moderates, they’re starting to leave the party. They aren’t able to function in that realm.
When you decided to switch parties, can you talk us through your decision-making? I’m curious how much it had to do with what was happening at the national level with Trump, versus what was happening in Kansas.
All those factors combined. Over time, as a person identifying as a moderate Republican, I found myself constantly at odds with our Republican leadership in Kansas. Starting with the Brownback tax experiment, I remember voting no and saying, “I sure hope I’m wrong ... I’m happy to be wrong on this,” but I wasn’t.
[Starting in 2012, Brownback drastically slashed the state’s income tax rate by 30 percent, and the tax rate on pass-through income to zero. The Brownback tax cuts were later overturned by the Republican state legislature as a failed experiment, but not until they blew a $900 million hole in the state budget, cutting funding for public schools and state infrastructure in the process.]
We’re still climbing out of that, but also things like when the Republicans were refusing to fund our schools constitutionally, and then went to a block grant system. Especially things like local control and fiscal responsibility — when you’re having to borrow money to pay your bills, that isn’t Republican values. So at some point, you realize it just isn’t working anymore.
I didn’t change parties at the time, but I endorsed Laura Kelly across party lines. People weren’t standing up in this country saying it’s not just about the party, it’s about good representation. Kansans obviously agreed with me and voted Laura Kelly into office. Once that happened, for me it just became clear — I needed to move on.
I had tried for all these years to help move the party to a more central position, and it was failing. At some point you have to recognize you can function and represent the people better, where you’re welcomed and can do your job, can stay on committees — as a doctor on the health committee, etc. Those are important things for the people of Kansas.
Senate Republicans are moving to confirm [Judge Amy Coney Barrett] to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some progressives in the Senate have floated ideas like adding more seats to the Supreme Court if Democrats are in the majority — to balance out the Court’s ideological configuration. Would you support that if Republicans barrel ahead with this confirmation process?
Well, they’re going to do that.
Right now, I don’t have any interest in changing the number of Supreme Court justices. That’s just not on my plate right now.
The Supreme Court is one of our three branches of government — one of the most important institutions that we have — and we shouldn’t politicize it. It should not be politicized. And it’s been disappointing to see this rampage through, for something that’s going to last a lifetime for a person. Careful thought is important. We deserve that.
The court-packing issue seems to be a symptom of a larger problem that Democrats are starting to diagnose, which is maybe some of our democratic institutions are not as democratic as we thought they would be. Donald Trump is the president not because he won the most votes, but because he won the Electoral College, which gives disproportionate influence to smaller, more rural, whiter states.
Are you receptive to any ideas, whether that’s statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, some kind of gerrymandering legislation?
Well, Dylan, you’ve hit a lot of topics there. I think this is a really important conversation, in that to be a great nation, you need to continue to evaluate yourself and see how you can do better. Just because you started in a certain place, you should always be evaluating, again and again, to say, is this the best that we can do? What do we need to do to be better at it? I learned that as a physician, you don’t just sit back and go, “Okay, I’m prescribing this, and then we’re not ever going to talk again.” You keep evaluating and adjusting as needed.
It’s the same thing with our country, what is working? And in the time that you’re living, what is the right thing? Yeah, it should come to the table, should DC be a state or not? Whether they’re a state, should those people have the right to vote for a senator and a representative? I have a son that’s in DC right now at George Washington Law School who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, specifically so that he can vote. Because why would he want to give up that right as a US citizen? He wasn’t willing to do that and live in DC, even though it’d be closer. That’s a perfect example.
What is most important about us, Dylan, as a country and democracy, is our willingness to work together. I just came off of working in a state Senate that the leadership completely blocked what 80 percent of Kansas wanted. Eighty percent [wanted] Medicaid expansion. We had the votes; they wouldn’t let it get on the floor. Is that democracy as most people envision it? I’m not thinking that’s exactly it. It’s our call as elected officials to call out when things are not right, and work toward a better and working democracy. We do that by being willing to work together and not calling names and denigrating the other side. We’re all Americans, and we need to display that.
You once said the Republican Party was “hell bent” on removing moderates. What do you see as the future of the Republican Party under Trump? Where do disaffected moderate Republicans like yourself go? You clearly joined the Democratic Party, but do other moderates create a third independent party?
All right, so, “hell bent”? This is the first election I’ve ever been in, that a party is actually standing with me. The Kansas Chamber [of Commerce] puts out a voter freedom index. One year I voted with them, like 88-90 percent of the time. And I said, “What are you going to do?” And they go, “We’ll change the criteria and include last year, so that you can’t qualify.” It didn’t matter if you even were with them. They didn’t want the opportunity as a moderate for anyone to possibly be represented. So that’s hell bent.
[Author note: The Freedom Index is published by the Kansas Policy Institute, a free market think tank. The Kansas Chamber told Vox lawmakers must vote in line with its policy criteria 80 percent of the time or more to receive the chamber’s endorsement, and said Bollier did not meet that threshold when she served in the Kansas state legislature.]
Quite honestly, a third party — every single state in this nation has rules in their state legislatures that are built around a two-party system. Those two parties have no interest in ceding any of their potential power to another party. You don’t have a path, certainly at any state level to have a third party. They can’t [serve] on a committee. There’s no place.
So our country isn’t going to have a third party. There’s no way. I kept hearing the “big tent” idea on the Republican side? No, the big tent’s on the Democratic side. As you know, who is nominated by the Democratic side, it wasn’t the extreme. It was the more centralized candidate. That’s a message to the people. The Democratic Party doesn’t want to go, some people do but not the majority. The majority of people aren’t on either extreme. They’re in that center section.
A couple of questions on Medicaid expansion, if you will. Why has Kansas not expanded Medicaid today? Is it largely intractable Republican opposition to Obamacare just on principle?
That’s all there is to say about it. It’s exactly the truth.
As you are now running to join the US Senate, what do you see as your role in advocating for Medicaid expansion as a US senator? That is a decision in Kansas, especially without a ballot referendum option, that’s entirely up to the legislature and the government.
That’s not quite true. Why do we have Medicaid expansion? The Affordable Care Act, very clear. My opponent has voted repeatedly to end the Affordable Care Act; that means ending Medicaid expansion. I haven’t seen a single plan to include those millions of people who are now being able to have preventive care.
As a US senator, I very much will be standing up to keep Medicaid expansion as an option for people with the vast majority of states not only expanding but making no move whatsoever to end that expansion. Because it’s working.
Joe Biden has proposed an interesting fix for the Medicaid expansion gap, which would be automatically enrolling those folks into a new public health insurance option. I know you said in our questionnaire that you would support a public health insurance option, but I wanted to ask specifically about that provision. Do you see that as a potential alternative route to getting coverage to those folks?
I will have to read about it, I honestly have not. To be clear, I’m always open to options. One of the key things to think about when you’re looking at change is infrastructure. I mean, it’s not just about the health care, it’s about the whole process of enrolling people. That’s what bogs systems down, and I would need to see the impact of that and making this massive uprooting change. I don’t know, I would have to look into that.
What would you say is your level of confidence in the public health information that we’re getting out of the Trump administration right now?
Directly from Trump himself, it’s been disappointing at best. It’s actually been misleading at times even. That concerns me because I think leaders should lead on public health. The CDC — as long as they’re following science — but you hear and read that maybe they’re being influenced. I’m looking at data myself, you can follow data very clearly and look to things that are published in medical journals. This is new, and we’re learning.
I’ll be very clear. It’s been very disappointing to see, one of the simplest things we could do that science has showed us is wear a mask. And that’s become politicized.
It’s about public health. As a physician in the operating room, maybe I didn’t want to wear a mask every day, but by gosh, I did. Because it’s what you do to protect others.
In the same vein, there’s been reporting and certainly speculation about the potential for political interference in approving a Covid-19 vaccine. Given your background, how confident are you that the vaccine approval process will be governed entirely by science?
If the FDA approves this vaccine, it should be readily available then to front-line workers, people like teachers included, so they can be safe to go about and get our economy and our world back on track. So I look forward to that day, and I will trust the FDA.
In your practice, as a doctor in Kansas, how have you seen lack of affordable health care impacting your patients?
To speak directly from my practice, we did a tremendous number of pediatric dental cases that needed anesthetics. Those kids, so many of them just had completely rotted out teeth. Part of that was because they didn’t have access to the right foods to eat and not understanding necessarily when they needed to be at the dentist, or not even having access. They weren’t necessarily as healthy because of issues of poverty, that was very clear at that time.
Let’s move to now as a legislator and a physician. Knowing people calling me, begging for help when they get diagnosed with cancer. Women that have no option — it’s horrifying. They’ve had to wait so long, they don’t have the preventive testing that we all expect as part of our insurance. They don’t have access to that. [Paying for preventive testing] versus feeding your kids, I can tell you — you feed your kids. And then ending up with a cancer that’s way too advanced to really do anything.
We all lose from that. The social, human ramifications of not having adequate health care are almost incomprehensible to me for the leaders of the world that we are supposed to be. We can and we must do better. It is morally wrong.
During the Republican primary, a lot of political pundits inside Kansas and nationally were saying the only chance Democrats had to actually win this seat is if Kris Kobach is the Republican nominee. Obviously, he is not the Republican nominee. But Republicans have recently put $5.2 million into ads in Kansas. How can you still make this race competitive and win against Republicans’ preferred candidate in this race?
To be clear, the Republicans’ preferred candidate [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] didn’t run.
The reason I’m in this race is because I knew based on the field that was present, that I was a better candidate than any of them, I was willing to work in a bipartisan manner and wanted to actually move health care forward — which is the number one issue for people in the state. I always knew it didn’t matter who I ran against, because what was being offered from this campaign was so different than what any Republicans seem to be offering to the people.
Ultimately, when you look at these large corporate PACs coming in to save my opponent, we have such tremendous grassroots support, financially, let alone the volunteers. People from all 105 counties have donated to this campaign. We’ve raised record amounts because the people of Kansas are really speaking up and saying, we want something different. Yeah, it’s been since 1932. And it’s time for change.
Update, October 13: This post has been updated with information from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce on its voting criteria and the freedom index Bollier mentioned.