This Woman Could Be the First Democratic Senator From Kansas Since 1932

Polls show Barbara Bollier is running a competitive race against her Republican opponent.

Kansas Republicans celebrated when the so-called “establishment candidate,” Rep. Roger Marshall won the Senate primary against Kris Kobach, a Trump mini-me who lost the 2018 governor’s race in that state. But recent polls show that Marshall is in a dead heat with his opponent, Barbara Bollier. 

Back in 2004, Thomas Frank put Kansas on the modern-day political map with his book, 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,” as is represented by their attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, end affirmative action, and demonize immigrants. 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, Bollier was one of four Kansas state legislators who left the Republican Party in 2019. All four were women representing suburban districts just outside Kansas City. Each of their districts was in the congressional district which elected Sharice Davids. As one of three openly lesbian women currently serving in Congress (all Democrats), Davids’s resume demonstrates that Kansas really is changing. She is a Native American graduate of Cornell Law School who served in the Obama administration and has competed as a mixed martial arts fighter. Explaining her decision to switch parties, Bollier pointed out how Republicans have reacted to these changes when she 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 the Kansas suburbs, it is important to look at the rural areas of the state. While anecdotal, journalist James Fallows and his wife Deborah spent 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 it’s not Kobach country either. Trump’s 20-point win in the state in 2016 is down to under nine points, according to the polling aggregate at FiveThirtyEight. What worries Kansas Republicans are the ticket splitters who support the president but plan to vote for Bollier. She captured some of that in a recent television ad.

That message won’t please progressive Democrats, but it’s worth remembering that Kansas elected the first woman to serve a full term in the Senate without her husband having previously served in Congress. Nancy Kassebaum, a truly moderate Republican, held this Senate seat from 1978 to 1997 and 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 at the University of Kansas, wrote, Marshall 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 helped lead the fight to repeal Obamacare in 2017 and continues to campaign on a “repeal and replace” health care platform, which he justifies by quoting the Bible.

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Pressed on that point, Marshall shrugged.

“Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care,” he said.

It is one thing to oppose Obamacare. But anyone with an ounce of humanity would be offended by a politician using the Bible to suggest that poor people don’t want health care. 

This Senate race is rated as “likely Republican” by both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Sure, other Senate seats are more likely to flip, including 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, the year Kassebaum’s father, Alf Landon, ran against Franklin Roosevelt. We’re not in old Kansas anymore. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

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