Could a Democrat Really Win the Senate Seat in Kansas?

An expert in the red state’s politics on Republicans’ troubles there this election year.

Bollier, wearing a mask, looks at her phone. Another man in a mask works at a laptop. They are seated at a table inside the ornate Capitol.
Barbara Bollier awaits the start of the legislative session Thursday at the Kansas Statehouse. Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal via USA Today Network

In 2016, Kansans voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran handily held onto his seat with more than 60 percent of the vote. This year, though, a Democrat named Barbara Bollier—the first of the four state legislators who in 2018 walked away from the GOP, citing the growth in right-wing extremism—appears to stand a real chance at nabbing the seat vacated by Sen. Pat Roberts. If she does, she would be the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Kansas since 1932.

Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist who switched parties after 43 years as a Republican, faces off against a more conventionally Trump-era candidate named Roger Marshall. Marshall is also a doctor, but he has followed the lead of national Republicans in holding maskless events and even taking hydroxychloroquine, a COVID treatment with no scientific backing. Marshall’s campaign has accused Bollier of being an extremist who wants to take away Kansans’ guns, support the Democrats’ abortion policies, and torch the state economy in order to preserve the environment. Bollier’s campaign has focused on supporting public health care and Medicaid expansion. Her campaign, if nothing else, has drawn in big money: She raised $13.5 million from July through September and blew past previous records for a candidate in Kansas.

To get a sense of whether Democrats should really get their hopes up about a Bollier victory, we spoke with Don Haider-Markel, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: To get right to it, do you think a Democrat could win this seat?

Haider-Markel: Pretty much all of the polling I’ve seen in the last month has been a statistical dead heat, so it’s really hard to tell. That being said, this is a red state. Although we have a Democratic governor right now—and in the past 20 years, had two other Democratic governors, both of which were women—the statewide races for Senate have not really tilted toward Democrats above 41 or 42 percent for a very long time. So she’s got a tough path. But it doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It’s entirely possible.

What does Bollier need to do, then, to win?

A big part of this is going to be turnout. If we’re looking at the kind of huge turnout that we’re starting to see with requests for mail ballots and absentee ballots in places like Georgia and Texas, it’s entirely possible that on election night she ekes out a victory. The Trump base is highly motivated and certainly going to turn out to vote. Democrats, even here in Kansas, are highly motivated to vote. So the real question is: Will those more independent-leaning voters get off the couch and get out to vote? And that’s something we’re not entirely sure about yet.

So how should we be thinking about this race? As a matter of Democrats versus Republicans? Of conservatives versus moderates?

The question is who’s seen as the more moderate, who’s seen as the one who will be able to stand up to party leaders in Washington. We had a very strong negative reaction to a very conservative Republican governor in [Sam] Brownback—and to a failed tax experiment. It’s also a reaction to how extreme the Republican leadership in the Legislature has gotten—not just in 2016, but in the past 10 years. More moderate Republicans are uncomfortable with continuing to support these Republican candidates.

How is she trying to appeal to those moderate Republicans?

By focusing on health care, the economy, and to a lesser extent agriculture. She’s played it up by getting a number of significant Republicans to publicly endorse her. Some have appeared in ads in support of her. There’s a pretty powerful one with a rancher who says that he’s going to support President Trump for reelection but vote for Barbara Bollier because she’s seen as a moderate pragmatist and not somebody who is going to be pushed around by Trump.

How is Marshall fighting for the moderates?

A significant part of the [flight of moderates from the Republican Party in Kansas] is who the Republican nominee was for the [2018] gubernatorial race: Kris Kobach. And there has just been a sort of bad-taste-in-the-mouth reaction to Kris Kobach. Republicans were terrified that he was going to be the Senate nominee. If he was, it would have been a lot more likely that Bollier would win this race. But Marshall is presented as the alternative to Kobach, the more moderate version. We’ll see how well the “moderate” message goes. If Kansans see him as not as moderate as he is trying to portray himself, they will not turn out to vote for him, or they will cast their vote for Bollier. But historical trends would just suggest those Republicans will come back in the fold. They’ll say, “Well, he’s not so bad. He’s not like the extreme folks in the Legislature.”

[So far Marshall is using] the traditional Republican talking points, because he’s really trying to mobilize Republicans. I’m sure in the last couple of weeks here they’ll start making broader appeals to independence.

Because there was such a weak Democratic Party in the state, Bollier didn’t have to worry about a real primary contest. Is this a time when being the underdog is an asset?

It did advantage her not to have a contested primary, and it did advantage her to have a really divisive primary on the Republican side. Not just for time and money, but also image. [And] I think it partly helps to explain how she was able to attract early money, then come up last quarter with a record-breaking fundraising for a Republican or Democrat in Kansas. And that’s not a trivial thing.

But importantly, it also meant that the [national] Republican Party had to spend money here in a state where they shouldn’t have to be spending any super PAC money. That money should be going elsewhere. So it really shows how eroded the path became for Republicans to hold onto the Senate. Kansas is just one example of how problematic this election year has become for Republicans.

It’s worth noting that both candidates have backgrounds in medicine, though they’ve taken different approaches to handling the coronavirus pandemic. How has the pandemic affected this race?

It’s really reflective of what you’re seeing throughout the country, where Republicans are treating the pandemic as not so serious. Most of Marshall’s ads don’t talk about the pandemic and don’t talk about health care as an issue. The one health care issue that Marshall’s ads bring up is abortion.

[But Bollier] is clearly speaking directly to the pandemic as an issue and to her experience as a medical doctor. She only has so much advantage as a doctor, because her opponent is also a doctor, but her ads do talk about that and do show her oftentimes wearing a mask. Bollier, just like Democrats nationally, sees health care as advantageous. It was going to be an issue even without the pandemic, but the pandemic did push even more people to think about it, because so many people lost jobs and health care. The messaging on the pandemic specifically is subdued. It’s more in general about access to affordable health care, and the pandemic as an example of why that’s important.

As for Bollier’s switch to join the Democratic Party: She’s held that it was because the Republican Party had changed. Her opponents are saying that she is an opportunist. Is there a sense that voters believe one or the other?

I mean, it’s sort of ironic to talk about somebody choosing to be a Democrat in Kansas. That’s not a path to victory! Of course [her opponents] are going to make that argument. But I don’t think that resonates with folks. It could be that [being a Democrat] might be more effective with a couple of the state legislators because of the changes happening in their districts as the Republican Party has gotten so extreme. But Kansas is a pretty practical state. Folks are interested in traditional good governance. They’re not interested in those political games.

You’re talking about suburban, educated, white voters who are feeling uncomfortable with the modern Republican Party. Are there any other demographics to think about?

People often don’t think about racial and ethnic diversity in Kansas. But Kansas has seen those demographic trends we’ve seen nationally. The needs of the agricultural industry and meat processing plants have brought in a Latino population that, 15 years ago, wasn’t here. That’s changed a number of small towns in the state and is reflected in the more dense urban and suburban areas as well. Are those Latino voters who tend to be historically socially conservative but are economically liberal—which way are they going to go? That’s a story that nobody’s talking about outside of places like Florida and Texas. But it’s a factor here as well. We just don’t have data to talk about it.

What might people get wrong when they’re thinking about Kansas?

In 2018, not only did we have Sharice Davids, elected as the first out representative from Kansas, but we also had two LGBT state legislators elected who didn’t even really come close to being successful before. This year, there’s a record number of LGB candidates, and there’s even a transgender candidate down by Wichita who is in such a Democratic-leaning district that she’s basically the de facto winner. So it’s a remarkable year and a remarkable situation when you look back to say, 2005, when the state overwhelmingly supported a [state] constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. So it’s a red state. It’s conservative. But that broad brush misses some of the nuances.

Is there anything else you would want people to bear in mind as they watch this election in Kansas?

I think it’s telling that even though Kansas is going to support the president’s reelection bid, that support is eroded. He’s not going to have anywhere close to quite the overwhelming percentage that he had in 2016. And that’s telling about these down-ballot races. Trump has really hurt the Republican brand. There is no reason this should be a competitive race. It really can’t be explained without three individuals: Trump, Brownback, and Kobach.