A Democrat hasn’t won a US Senate seat in Kansas since 1932. And yet, for the first time in decades, the ruby-red state is seeing a truly competitive Senate race.
With an open seat after longtime Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced his retirement, polling of Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier and Republican Rep. Roger Marshall shows a tight contest. This summer, political experts in the state assumed the only way Democrats could make Kansas competitive was by running against controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost to Marshall in the August primary.
But so far, Bollier’s fundraising and polling are defying much of the conventional wisdom about Kansas politics. Bollier has out-fundraised Marshall by more than $5 million, the latest figures from OpenSecrets show.
Most polls over the summer and fall have shown the candidates either tied or Marshall ahead by a few percentage points. A recent internal GOP poll showed Marshall ahead by 4 points, while Bollier’s own internal poll showed her ahead by 2 points. In other words, there’s currently no clear frontrunner, though the Republican lean of the state favors Marshall.
“Since the primary, polling has consistently shown at least among voters that are decided, there’s no clear leader in the race,” said Patrick Miller, political science professor at Kansas University. “Republicans are insisting very strongly that it’s not a competitive race, that it’s safe ... but they’re definitely acting like it’s competitive.”
“It’s tight, it’s a lot tighter than anyone would have expected and anyone would have wanted,” a GOP strategist told Vox. “I think you’ve broadly seen a tightening in margins around the country. A lot of it can be attributed to Democrats having a lot of money to spend.”
Political observers in the state say after beating a polarizing conservative, Marshall himself is adopting more Kobach-like rhetoric rather than moderating his approach.
“I think his strategy is definitely more focused on the conservative part” of the electorate, Miller said. Marshall’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
Kansas Democrats have made big strides in 2018, with the election of Gov. Laura Kelly and Rep. Sharice Davids, the first openly gay Native American member of Congress elected to the House. After years of conservative rule in Kansas politics, a Democratic resurgence is happening. Democrats are especially betting that a campaign focused on health care and Kansas Republicans’ refusal to pass Medicaid expansion will make the seat competitive — especially as neighboring red states like Missouri and Oklahoma have passed expanded Medicaid through ballot initiatives.
This makes 2020 a good test of whether it can help Democrats flip what once seemed like a long-shot Senate seat. Bollier, a former moderate Republican in the state Senate who switched parties in 2018, thinks there are plenty of people in Kansas like her — people who didn’t start out as Democrats but are fed up with a state and national GOP so consumed by Trumpian conservatives.
“The majority of people aren’t on either extreme,” Bollier told Vox in a recent interview. “They’re in that center section.”
Why Kansas really could be competitive for Democrats
Let’s start with the obvious: Kansas is historically a very Republican state. It’s home to the Koch family, former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, and former Gov. Sam Brownback — who helmed the draconian 2012 and 2013 Kansas tax cut experiment.
Still, Kansas Republicans can’t be painted with a single brush. Kansas political experts have long observed that the state is home to three parties: Democrats, moderate Republicans, and conservative Republicans.
“The reality is, the Democrats are their party, and the Republicans are a divided party,” Bollier told Vox. As Bollier tells it, moderates and conservatives in the state are constantly at odds. Bollier eventually decided she had more in common with Democrats like Kelly, whom she endorsed in 2018 — shortly before becoming a Democrat herself.
Kansas conservatives don’t just take extreme positions on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. They are also known for taking extreme fiscal positions, such as when Brownback drastically slashed the state’s income tax rate by 30 percent and the tax rate on pass-through income to zero. Funding for public education and state infrastructure became collateral damage, causing schools to shorten their weeks and years due to staffing shortages. The Brownback tax cuts were later deemed a failed experiment and overturned by the Republican state legislature, but not until they blew a $900 million hole in the state budget.
“I had tried for all these years to help move the party to a more central position, and it was failing,” Bollier told Vox recently. “Starting with the Brownback tax experiment, I remember voting no and saying ‘I sure hope I’m wrong.’ But I wasn’t.”
Kansas-based progressives say the increasingly extreme positions of the Brownback administration and conservatives in the state legislature reinvigorated the state’s decrepit Democratic Party — making it a more appealing option to people like Bollier, who were being nudged more and more to the center. At the same time, it was also nudging many everyday voters who hadn’t been active in politics to get personally involved.
“In 2014, things were bad,” said Davis Hammet, the founder of Loud Light, a Kansas-based organization focused on increasing young voter turnout. “Traditional Republicans were nearly extinct and there was talk of the state Democratic Party dissolving. There was no power structure to counteract the extreme far-right. Kansas is a story of everyone being down, then coming together.”
In the span of just four years, Kansas Democrats went from being a party considering dissolving itself to winning the governor’s race and a key House seat. Skip ahead two years and another House seat — the 2nd Congressional District — is in play in addition to the open Senate seat. As in many other states, the bluing suburbs around cities like Kansas City and Topeka are going to be critical areas for Democrats to win in order to do well.
Kansas isn’t as Trump-loyal as you might expect
Hammet and Bollier alike chalk up this year’s competitive race in part to exhaustion with reactionary politics in the state well before Trump became president.
“We had a little Trump thing going on before Trump,” Hammet said. “We watched far-right ideology destroy our state, but then changed course and started to build back up. It was at a state level, now it’s at a national level.”
Miller, the Kansas University professor, says that while Kansas reliably votes red, its demographics make it different from other more Trump-friendly conservative states, thus making it more likely its voters would stray from the president in 2020.
“The thing about Kansas is we are a more Republican than conservative state if you look at the polling,” Miller said, pointing to the state’s strong public university system producing a lot of college-educated voters. “If you look at the politics of right now, they make us a little less reliably Trump than you might expect. We are a red state but we are not monolithically red.”
As a member of Congress, Marshall has walked the line between moderate and conservative. He is a party-line Republican; at times, he’s sounded open to reforms like a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but he has also vocally supported Trump’s agenda. Ahead of the Republican Senate primary, Marshall kept a fairly low profile in Kansas politics; he certainly wasn’t known for the brash, controversial rhetoric of someone like Kobach.
“He’s the kind of Republican that, if Republican leadership has negotiated a compromise spending bill with Democrats, Marshall is going to vote for it because leadership is going to vote for it,” Miller told Vox this summer. “He’s not going to vote no on principle.”
Marshall also wasn’t initially the ideal candidate of McConnell and Senate Republican leadership, who spent months courting current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former member of Congress from the state. Pompeo ultimately did not jump into the race.
“To be clear, the Republican’s preferred candidate didn’t run,” Bollier told Vox.
Trump won Kansas by 21 points in 2016, but the FiveThirtyEight polling average of Kansas this year shows him just 7 points ahead of Biden. Few people doubt Trump will win Kansas in 2020, but his margins will matter greatly for the Senate race. The president has a net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) of just 4 percentage points, according to Morning Consult — much lower than places like Kentucky or Alabama.
“Ever since Trump was inaugurated, Kansas is split about 50-50 in his job approval,” said Miller. “Maybe more so here than in other states, there are people that voted for him but don’t necessarily approve of the job he’s doing.”
Democrats have seized on health care as a winning issue in Kansas
Health care proved to be a winning message for Democrats in the 2018 elections, including in Kansas, where they won the governor’s seat and a competitive House race. In the middle of a pandemic where millions have lost their health insurance along with their jobs, they’re betting the issue will be even more salient in 2020.
Bollier, a doctor, is well positioned to take a health care message to voters. Marshall, who is an OB-GYN, has focused on abortion (he is vehemently against it). Marshall came under fire for comments he made about Medicaid expansion in 2017, seemingly suggesting that low-income people who could benefit from the program “just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
Bollier, on the other hand, portrays the lack of affordable health care in her state as a moral issue.
“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,” she said. “Let’s get something happening so people have access to that care. It is morally wrong.”
Kansas is one of a dozen states that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. About 150,000 people living in or near poverty would be eligible for coverage if the state took that step. It’s an idea that is popular with the state’s voters; a fall 2019 survey found that 62 percent of Kansas voters support Medicaid expansion.
Conservative opposition explains the state’s failure to expand Medicaid; Brownback vetoed an expansion bill when he was governor in 2017, and before that, the Republican legislature passed a bill that blocked any governor from expanding Medicaid through their executive authority. That meant when Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s election in 2018 and entered office having promised to expand Medicaid, she wasn’t able to fulfill that promise on her own. She has been negotiating with Republican legislative leaders on an expansion plan, though their talks this year were scuttled by the Covid-19 pandemic, which ended the state legislative session early.
But despite the struggles to achieve expansion, Democrats have turned Medicaid expansion into a winning political issue, flipping the script on that Republican obstruction.
Bollier, whose campaign promises to defend states’ abilities to expand Medicaid under the ACA, says it’s one of those issues that can win over the moderate voters who are so critical to a winning Democratic coalition in Kansas. She portrayed her old party’s intransigence as an example of the kind of politics that doesn’t work for people.
“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,” she said. “It’s our call as elected officials to call out when things are not right and work toward a better and working democracy.”
The pandemic could make health care a more salient issue for voters as well, Medicaid expansion advocates in the state told Vox. The state’s unemployment is still twice as high as it was before the pandemic, and many of the people out of work likely lost health coverage.
In states that expanded Medicaid, the program’s enrollment swelled to cover people who are newly uninsured. But many people in Kansas with reduced incomes weren’t eligible for those benefits.
“This has become very real for people and very immediate,” April Holman, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, said. “This is now about making sure you and your family and neighbors have access to affordable health care.”
In a sign of how far health care politics have shifted since Obamacare first passed, Bollier has signaled an openness to a public option insurance plan. In 2010, the public option was stripped from the Democratic health care bill because moderate, life-long Democrats would not get on board.
Now Bollier, who only recently became a Democrat, is willing to consider such a proposal.
“We need someone that wants to protect quality and safety while still working on reducing costs,” Bollier said. “You cannot leave the patient out of the equation. If you only are looking at cost, you’re going to hurt people.”