In the Republican primary for an open Senate seat for Kansas, there are 11 candidates on the ballot. But most people are focused on just two of them: Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and a big Trump supporter, and Roger Marshall, a congressman hoping for a promotion. This race luminates a dread for the GOP: that Kobach, the iconic conservative, the one most connected to the president, is also the one most likely to lose. And Kansas Democrats are loving this: No Dem has won a Senate seat for Kansas since the 1930s. The result of this primary could change that.
On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with David Weigel, national politics reporter for the Washington Post, about why Republicans are fearful of Kobach, why Democrats have hope here, and what this could mean for November’s congressional elections. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You flew to Kansas in the middle of a pandemic. Why?
David Weigel: Kansas stood out to me because this is a race that just about no one else from the East Coast media had personally covered. It’s a race between one of the most influential conservative politicians of his generation and a candidate being propped up by the Chamber of Commerce and other groups—because they see him as more electable and they see Kobach, iconic as he is, as the only person who can blow the seat.
When was the first time you began to think that Democrats were really making a play for it in Kansas?
When Democrats began spending money on a PAC that was elevating Kris Kobach. The president has been pretty weak in Kansas, relative to where he was in 2016, ever since COVID. And Joe Biden is not as much of a drag on Democrats as Hillary Clinton was four years ago, as Barack Obama was eight years ago. Rightly or wrongly, Dems thought Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would hurt them in states like this. They don’t have that issue. They have Joe Biden, whom the Trump campaign has struggled to define. So Democrats had large ambitions at the start of the cycle that I think got larger when they realized that if Republicans are in bad shape, winning a Senate race in Kansas might mean running just 8, 9 points ahead of the president as opposed to 25 points ahead of the president.
Tell me a little bit about Barbara Bollier, who she is, and why she’s such an appealing candidate for Democrats.
Bollier, the Democrat who was strong enough to get most of the other candidates to drop out, was a liberal Republican from the Kansas City suburbs who left the party in 2018 over a bunch of issues, among them abortion and the Trump Republican Party’s direction. She’s not a very ideological candidate. In her ads, she talks about why she got into politics, and it’s basically improving people’s lives. That’s it. She’s emphasizing how little she cares about most of political debate, and she defines that pretty broadly. There are, I think, people exhausted by the politicization of everything. She has taken this tone of We know how government should work, we’ve done it pretty well before, with very little interest in litigating individual issues.
When I spoke with her for this podcast, she talked about how she’d watched her party evolve and become very strict, policing its own to be very, very conservative. She said it’s why she left. And she’s running against people who are very much a part of that Kansas Republican Party system.
So let’s talk about the Republicans a little bit. Kris Kobach is known for being a big believer in election fraud. Introduce me to him, because I know you traveled with him a bit.
He’s an ultimately terribly unsuccessful and really successful politician. I guess there are not many people who’ve bounced this far between such extremes as he has. He got started in politics very young in Kansas. He worked in the George W. Bush administration setting up the DHS. Then Kobach came back to Kansas, ran for state Senate, flopped, ran for Congress, flopped. Then he ran the state party, with a focus on not just “election fraud” but in specifically getting voters challenged or off the rolls.
The problem was, as a manager, he just wasn’t very good. His career seemed to be over in 2008 because he ran the state party into the ground, but then he turns around, runs for secretary of state in 2010, has a lot of success for about a decade, and then runs for governor in 2018. He narrowly wins the primary and loses badly in the general election. Interestingly, he actually got more votes for governor than the last candidate who won—the problem was that Democrats surged in the suburbs. Some Republicans might look at that and say, Why did we do so badly in the suburbs? Let’s change that.
And I say all this because you might ask, how come somebody with these blots on his record become an iconic Republican figure invited by the president to help write his immigration and voting voter fraud policy?
Because it seems like he’s failing up.
Yeah, well, the overall attitude is that these ideas can’t fail—they can only be failed. That in general, the idea of making it harder for immigrants to live here, the idea of making it harder to show up to the polls and vote, those are “good” concepts. The president has never abandoned Kobach, even as Republicans have said, This guy can’t win. You’ve got to cut bait so we can get somebody more electable.
Kobach loves looking like a hard-liner. I still remember this image of him from when he was running for governor, where he was on the back of a Jeep with a giant machine gun. He seems to delight in these conservative tropes, and we’re at this moment where the country is thinking about how much it wants to engage with those tropes. So it’s interesting to me that he’s running again because it just makes you wonder, like, is he making any attempt to moderate his position?
Well, no, because he believes that this is what the state wants and that when it’s been denied it’s a fluke. I’ve not seen any watering down. So you have Kobach basically reiterating, look, I was with Trump when it was hard, I endorsed him early, and I was advising him.
The anti-Kobach campaign is left with: He didn’t get the job as administration, so he must not be that great. Meanwhile, Roger Marshall also agrees with Trump on everything.
Let’s talk about Marshall. He’s definitely the pick of the Washington GOP establishment. Why?
He does not have the flaws that Kobach has. He’s a veteran and doctor who became a member of Congress. He’s Rotary Club volunteer. He basically has what you see a lot in this era, the classic Republican biography. But his typical Republican story came about in the age of Trump. So he combines I’m a family man and doctor and veteran who can work to get stuff done with I am 110 percent loyal to the president and he will trust me to get his agenda through.
So he’s still a Trump Republican. He’s just not as flashy.
That’s a fair way to put it.
Can we talk about the stakes here? A top lieutenant to Mitch McConnell and said the Republican Senate majority is gone if Kobach is the nominee. Is that just panic?
I think there’s panic because of this moment, and they need to get as much money as fast as possible. If they’re on defense everywhere, then every dollar they have to spend in Kansas is a dollar that didn’t go to Iowa, that didn’t go to Arizona. So I think it’s the idea of donors being spread thin and fatigued. And just the ask—let’s say Biden was requesting, help me with this fund to win Connecticut. The donor might say, what am I investing in? Because if Biden’s losing Connecticut, he’s lost by a landslide. Same thing here: What is the utility of giving to this cause if the party is in such trouble that it has to spend money in Kansas and Arizona and North Carolina, states that the party thought were heading its way?
So far, the president hasn’t endorsed anyone in this race, despite the fact that he and Kobach have worked closely together, something Kobach talks about on the trail. Is there a chance that Trump associates Kobach with loss because he lost that gubernatorial election, and so it’s easier for him to stay out of it?
Yeah, much easier, I think. The president flew to Kansas and put political capital behind Kobach. It didn’t work. Now, Kobach is running videos of the 2018 Trump appearance, running footage of the president singing his praises from a campaign that he lost. And Trump could make a splash and tell him to stop using it. But we’re in the final hours before the election. He never did.
I wonder if you think of Kansas itself as a kind of laboratory to understand what’s happening in the Republican Party right now, because the state has been solidly red, and it’s been going through this transition. Bollier, the assumed Democratic nominee for Senate, transitioned along with a bunch of other women in the state Senate to being Democrats. It seems like the state is evolving in some way.
Well, Kansas has never really been a swing state. LBJ was able to win it, and that’s it for Democrats. There was a Democratic tradition in some rural areas that’s pretty gone. So politically, it’s a state where almost everybody outside the biggest suburbs votes Republican. For the longest time, the strength the party was in those suburbs: of Wichita, of Topeka, of Kansas City. It is very heavily white, except for some Latino immigrants in the farming areas. And it’s very anti-abortion. So I don’t think it’s been changing as much as the parties have been moving around within the state. What you see in Kansas versus 10 years ago is not a surge of people becoming liberals. It’s that people are about the same amount of liberal or conservative, but the Trump Republican Party has gone so much further to the right that a lot of people have left it for the Democrats.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus