The Most Bizarre Senate Race Is Happening in Kansas

Outside groups are spending big money in the GOP primary—but not in the ways we’ve come to expect.

The state of Kansas holds its primary on August 4th and a whopping eleven candidates are vying for the Republican nomination to fill the senate seat vacated by the retirement of Pat Roberts. As a result, money from outside groups is pouring into the race, but not in the ways we’ve come to expect.

For example, a group with ties to Mitch McConnell is running ads that accuse one of the frontrunners, Kris Kobach, of having ties to white nationalists (fact check: true).

Meanwhile, another frontrunner is actually facing attacks from a group with ties to Kansas Democrats. The Sunflower State PAC is accusing Roger Marshall—who has been endorsed by McConnell, as well as the Chamber of Commerce—of being a swamp creature.

While it’s rare for Democrats to weigh in on a Republican Senate primary, it has happened before in the neighboring state of Missouri.

It worked in 2012 when Democrats intervened in Missouri’s Republican U.S. Senate primary to help Todd Akin. Running from the party’s right wing, Aikin won the nomination. But controversial statements about abortion cost him in the general election, which he lost to incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.

To make matters even more interesting, one of the other eleven Republican candidates is Bob Hamilton, the owner of a prosperous  plumbing company. He is self-financing his campaign and running as a Trump mine-me.

In a television ad that’s airing frequently in the closing weeks of the campaign, Hamilton aligns himself with President Trump and says career politicians like Kobach and Marshall can’t help shake-up the establishment because “they are the establishment.”

So where does Trump stand on this one? You might remember that the president appointed Kobach to be one of the co-chairs of his failed voter fraud commission. He also endorsed Kobach in the 2018 governor’s race. But this time, Trump is singing a different tune—behind the scenes.

And after he endorsed Kris Kobach, the firebrand Republican, in the 2018 Kansas governor’s race only to see him lose the general election in a deeply red state, Mr. Trump has played a hands-on role in attempting to deny Mr. Kobach the nomination for a Senate seat.

Last month, the president called David McIntosh, the head of the conservative Club for Growth, and persuaded him to have the group take down its ads attacking a rival to Mr. Kobach, Representative Roger Marshall, who is favored by many establishment-aligned Republicans. Still, Mr. Trump has not gone as far as endorsing Mr. Marshall, telling allies he did not want to anger his own voters by openly spurning Mr. Kobach.

All of this explains why McConnell spent months practically begging Mike Pompeo to throw his hat in the ring for this Senate seat. But for whatever reason, Pompeo wanted to stick to his job as Secretary of State.

There has been very little polling for this primary. Everyone agrees that Kobach was initially the favorite, but in May a Republican polling firm found that Marshall had a seven point lead (33-26) over Kobach. The rest of the crowded field was in single digits.

One last twist in this race is that whoever wins the Republican primary will face off against state senator Barbara Bollier. She is one of three Kansas state legislators who switched parties back in 2018. Here’s what she said when she announced that decision:

“I’ve been a proud Kansas Republican for 43 years,” said Bollier. “I always embraced the common-sense policies of Governor Bill Graves, US Senator Nancy Kassebaum, and President Eisenhower. But during the last eight years, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with Republican leaders’ hardline rhetoric, contempt for compromise, and obsession with putting political power before children and families. With this recent election it has become clear that the majority of the Republican Party does not accept moderate Republicans any longer.”

At this point, Bollier looks to be in a 40-40 tie with either Kobach or Marshall. Without a primary challenger, she’s been busy raising money for the general election.

Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D) raised $3.7 million in the second quarter for her Senate campaign as Democrats seek to make the contest competitive.

The haul is the largest reported single-quarter fundraising of any candidate in any race in Kansas history. The campaign said in a press release Wednesday that it has over $4 million in cash on hand and that nearly 91 percent of the second-quarter donations were for under $200. Nearly 81 percent of those who gave to the campaign from April-June were first-time donors.

So in a state that hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 1932 and went for Trump by over 20 points in 2016, this race could very well be a toss-up no matter which Republican wins the primary on August 4th.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.