Crucial Kansas Senate primary hurtles to tight finish

Republicans’ Senate majority could be on the line Tuesday night in Kansas, where GOP officials fear a primary victory for Kris Kobach would put a once-solid seat firmly in play.

GOP leaders have been outspoken in their opposition to Kobach since he entered the race last summer, but failed in their efforts to steer the race away from him, leaving it up in the air on primary night. Party officials couldn’t convince Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run, and some eventually consolidated behind Rep. Roger Marshall in the closing weeks of the race.

But President Donald Trump did not endorse or oppose anyone, frustrating some Republicans who thought he could have ended the concern by weighing in.

Early returns were positive for Marshall and anti-Kobach Republicans. The congressman had more than 34 percent of the vote, compared to nearly 25 percent for Kobach, with more than 100,000 votes counted. Businessman Bob Hamilton narrowly trailed Kobach with 21 percent of the vote.

Also on the ballot Tuesday was the fate of another controversial Kansas Republican: Rep. Steve Watkins. The freshman lawmaker faces a stiff primary challenge from state Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who has seized on Watkins’ litany of ethical and legal transgressions, including felony charges of voter fraud in the closing weeks of the primary. Privately, some House GOP operatives fear a victory by Watkins will endanger their hold on the seat in November.

Both the House and Senate primaries have been expensive, with a flurry of late spending and a crowded field of candidates leaving the threshold for victory lower and the outcome less certain. It’s also possible that the massive increase in absentee ballots could delay results for several days as all votes are counted; ballots postmarked on Tuesday can still be counted as long as they are received by the end of the week.

In the Senate race, nearly $5 million in spending from a super PAC with Democratic ties upended the contest’s final month. The group’s ads bashed Marshall, hurting his image while lifting Kobach up as a pro-Trump conservative. The group, which will not reveal the source of its funding until later this month, was by far the biggest spender in the Republican primary, outspending all GOP outside groups and campaigns.

If Marshall wins, Republicans are confident in their ability to retain the seat this fall. But if Kobach wins, Senate Republicans will face a difficult choice between supporting a candidate whom they have publicly bashed as unelectable, or leaving the state to chance with their already tenuous majority in peril.

Marshall, a two-term congressman, garnered support from across the spectrum after Pompeo declined to run: The Chamber of Commerce spent on his behalf, and the anti-abortion group Kansas for Life and the agricultural heavy Kansas Farm Bureau endorsed him. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, sent a robocall on his behalf late last week. Senate Leadership Fund, which is run by allies to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent nearly $2 million on positive ads for him.

Kobach has said Republicans should not fear losing the seat if he runs. He brushes aside criticism over his loss in the gubernatorial race two years ago, and says a federal race with control of the Senate in play — and Trump on the ballot — would be different.

“McConnell and the Washington Establishment will spend as much as they possibly can to smear me and prop up RINO Roger,” Kobach wrote to supporters. “They know Marshall is a fake conservative and flawed candidate, but they want to risk him … instead of letting the people of Kansas decide.”

Democrats have rallied behind Barbara Bollier, a state senator, physician and former Republican who officially won the party’s nomination Tuesday after running against only nominal opposition. Bollier has outraised all of her potential GOP opponents and her campaign announced $4.5 million on hand as of primary night, a large advantage over any of her potential opponents. She has been running weeks worth of positive TV ads while Republicans fight it out. Bollier in an interview Tuesday that she believed the race woudl be competitive regardless of the result in the GOP primary.

“I’m just looking out for what’s best for the people of Kansas, and what I have seen on the other side, all of the opponents, they’re just about partisan politics. That’s their top priority,” Bollier said. She called herself independent and said she wouldn’t be afraid to disagree with her party leadership. Asked specifically where she disagreed, she cited her opposition to Medicare for All and support of a public health care option, though that position is held by most of her party’s Senate candidates.

In the Topeka area, Watkins is fighting for his political life. An Army veteran and Iditarod racer, Watkins has been on shaky political footing since he won the district by 1 point in 2018, narrowly beating Democrat Paul Davis in a district that Trump carried by 18 points.

Bashing his poor fundraising and coalition building, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, whom Kobach defeated in the 2018 primary, personally enticed LaTurner out of the Senate race where he was dividing the anti-Kobach race and into the 2nd District.

LaTurner has a well-funded operation and has received outside help from a super PAC. But his biggest break came last month, when the Shawnee County district attorney charged Watkins with three felony counts of voter fraud, a move that forced him to step down from his House committee assignments and out of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot Program for endangered incumbents.

Still, Watkins has help from a super PAC of his own and may benefit from a third candidate splitting the anti-incumbent vote.

Whoever emerges will likely face Democrat Michelle De La Isla, the Topeka mayor.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, two other House incumbents face credible primary threats. In Missouri, progressives are hoping to oust Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay, a St. Louis fixture whose family has represented the area since the late 1960s. Cori Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, is making a second run against Clay after losing by 20 points in 2018. This time she’s better funded and said she’s seen an increase in donations and energy in her bid since progressives blowout victories in New York in June.

In Michigan, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of the “Squad,” faces a rematch with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones. Jones served a brief stint in Congress in 2018 after she won the special election to replace former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). But Tlaib won the primary election, held on the same day, to represent the seat for a full term in Congress.

Republicans will also pick battleground nominees in top House battlegrounds held by Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.). Washington state’s top-two primaries will likely set up a rematch between Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and 2018 Democratic nominee Carolyn Long.

Safe-seat primaries will yield likely new members of Congress in Kansas, Michigan and Washington state.

Elsewhere on the Senate map, contests in Arizona and Michigan will be locked in. In Arizona, appointed Republican Sen. Martha McSally faces only nominal opposition in her primary ahead of her special-election matchup against Democrat Mark Kelly in the fall. And in Michigan, both Democratic Sen. Gary Peters and Republican John James are unopposed.

Tuesday’s primaries will also set up two governor’s races for the fall. In Missouri, GOP Gov. Mike Parson and Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway finalized their long-awaited matchup, after each won primaries on Tuesday. And in Washington, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee will finish first in a 36-candidate, top-two primary — with the second-place candidate earning a berth to face Inslee in the general election.


About the author


Leave a Comment