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Republicans retain a hotly contested Kansas Senate seat as Roger Marshall beats Democrat Barbara Bollier

Marshall held off a surprisingly strong Democratic challenge to win the Kansas Senate race.

Republican Roger Marshall defeats Barbara Bollier.
Charlie Riedel/AP
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Republican Roger Marshall will keep the Kansas Senate seat in his party’s hands, defeating Barbara Bollier in one of the year’s most surprisingly competitive campaigns.

The GOP Congress member staved off a strong challenge from the Democrat, whose hefty fundraising portended a close finish. Democrats had been gaining ground in Kansas during the Trump era, having won the governor’s race in 2018.

But the state is still fundamentally Republican, and Marshall — a more mainstream-friendly candidate than his GOP primary rival Kris Kobach, who lost the governor’s race in 2018 — was able to prevent what would have been an embarrassing loss for his party. Marshall’s is a big win for the Republican establishment, especially after outgoing Sen. Pat Roberts announced his retirement, and their preferred candidate, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, decided not to run.

Marshall was courted by the Republican establishment to run for Senate shortly after winning his US House seat. He is a party-line Republican, usually aligned with business interests in the party. At times, he sounded open to reforms like a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

“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,” Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told Vox earlier this year. “He’s not going to vote no on principle.”

But he has vocally supported Trump’s agenda; he voted for Obamacare repeal and the tax law. Marshall’s Senate campaign also focused heavily on his opposition to abortion, which has been a focal point for Trump on health policy and in the judiciary.

The Republican relied on outside money to make up for his fundraising shortfall against Bollier. The Democrat outraised Marshall by more than $18 million — $24.2 million versus less than $6 million — in direct campaign contributions as of late October. But GOP-aligned outside groups outspent the Democratic side by nearly $10 million to help close the gap.

Bollier, a former Republican, switched parties after the 2018 midterms, in which she endorsed Democratic candidate for governor Laura Kelly, whose campaign she would seem at times to emulate. She framed herself as a moderate Democrat who supports Medicaid expansion, a popular issue with the state’s voters; a fall 2019 survey found that 62 percent of Kansas voters support it. However, Republicans have blocked the state from expanding the program’s eligibility, leaving about 150,000 people living in or near poverty without coverage.

“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,” Bollier told Vox in an interview during the campaign. “Let’s get something happening so people have access to that care. It is morally wrong.”

But Bollier’s message wasn’t enough to reproduce Kelly’s gubernatorial win. In the end, she came up short.

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