Republicans Are Freaking Out About Kansas

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S1: There aren’t too many people who would hop on a plane for work these days, but Dave Weigel over The Washington Post, he’s not like a lot of people. He says going to Kansas to cover the election that’s happening today, it was worth it.

S2: So why did you want to go to Kansas? I mean, I imagine, like, you have to really want to go somewhere to go somewhere.

S3: I think that’s a fair way to put it. Kansas stood out to me just because this is a race that literally when I was there, no one else had come from East Coast media, generally speaking, to Everett.

S1: This race is a primary for an open Senate seat. Dave says it’s become this portrait of dysfunction in the Republican Party rendered in miniature. They’re actually 11 candidates on the ballot for the GOP. But most people, they’re focused on just two of them, Kris Kobach, the former secretary of state and Kansas big Trump supporter, and Roger Marshall, a congressman hoping for a promotion.

S4: Dave sums it up like this, a race between just one of the most influential conservative politicians of his generation and a candidate kind of being propped up by the Chamber of Commerce, other groups, because they see him as more electable and they see the iconic conservative Kris Kobach is the only person who could blow the seat.

S1: This race is illuminating a Republican dread that the iconic conservative, the one whose most connected to the president, is also the one most likely to lose. And the Kansas Democrats, they’re loving it.

S5: Dave says if you’re in Kansas, you can tell just by flipping on the TV there on the attack, Mitt Romney, Republicans and never shrimpers are coming for Kris Kobach.

S1: And Colbert’s Democratic strategists have started running ads in the Republican primary.

S3: So one of her ads begins with these marching figures who all look identical and guys in suits walking in lockstep, representing the Mitt Romney Republicans.

S5: And never from birth to Romney crowd loves Roger Marshall, the guy who’s part of the Washington Swamp commercials.

S1: These spots do a neat trick. They use Republican buzzwords to push voters towards the candidate Democrats think they can beat in the general. In this case, Democrats want to face Kris Kobach. So in the primary, they’re doing Kobach dirty work for him, trashing his opponent, Roger Marshall.

S4: And there’s a little bit of, if you know, the old public service announcement, the the kid who says it was dad, I learned it from watching you. A little bit of that going on.

S3: And these Democratic ads, because they say you’re copying the language you are hearing in primaries around the country. It is a little confounding if you’re in Kansas, you’re not paying close attention.

S6: Today on the show, a Democrat hasn’t won a Senate seat in Kansas since the 1930s. We’ll talk about why this primary could change all that. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S7: It’s really weird to me that the Democrats think that they have a shot here, like when when was the first time when you sort of begin to think like, oh, the Democrats are really making a play for it in Kansas when they started this pack, really when the Democrats began spending money on a PAC that was elevating Kris Kobach, the president was pretty weak in Kansas relative to where he was in FY 16 before covid, much weaker since covid. And Joe Biden’s not as much of a drag on Democrats as Hillary Clinton was four years ago, as Barack Obama was eight years ago. And rightly or wrongly, they thought Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren was going to hurt them. In states like this, they don’t have that issue. They have Joe Biden, who the Trump campaign has struggled to define who it’s now less than 100 days after the election. They’re kind of retooling their message to say that he’s a Trojan horse for the left, ipso facto, that Biden himself is not that scary. So the Democrats had large ambitions at the start of the cycle that I think got larger when they realized if Republicans are in bad shape. You know, winning a Senate race in Kansas might mean running just eight, nine points ahead of the president, as opposed to twenty five points ahead of the president.

S1: One of the people hoping to ride Biden’s down ballot coattails is Barbara Bollea, the presumed Democratic nominee in this Kansas Senate race. She only recently joined the party. I spoke to a year and a half ago. Back then, as a state senator, she and a couple of colleagues had made headlines for leaving the Republican Party, saying they just didn’t see a place for themselves in the GOP.

S8: I thought Republicans were people who supported liberty, freedom and justice. And when you start excluding certain groups from protections, that doesn’t represent that value system either.

S2: So tell me a little bit about Barbara Bollier, who she is and why she’s such an appealing candidate for Democrats.

S7: Barbara Bollier, their nominee, who was strong enough to get most of her candidates to drop out, was a liberal Republican from the Kansas City suburbs, left the party in twenty eighteen over a bunch of issues, but among them, abortion and and just the Trump Republican Party’s direction.

S3: She’s just not a very ideological candidate. Even her ads that there’s an inflection of voice that she has no other that I notice where she talks about why she got into politics and it’s basically improving people’s lives and that’s it.

S9: And I got into public service simply to improve people’s lives. That’s it. I’m just not into the political fights that get us nowhere.

S4: I’m focused on it, just emphasizing how little she cares about most of political debate. And she defines that pretty broadly. And we didn’t get deep, deep into this. But there are, I think, people exhausted by the politicization of everything she has taken this tone of, like, look, we know how government should work. We’ve done it pretty well before. I’m going to do that again with very little interest in litigating individual issues.

S2: Yeah, I mean, when we spoke, she talked about how she’d watched her party evolve and watched the party become very strict and really policed its own and really policed them to be very, very conservative. And it’s why she said she left. And it’s interesting that that’s why she said she left, because she’s running against people, Republican candidates, who are very much a part of that Kansas Republican Party system. So let’s talk about the Republicans a little bit. I mean, we talked a little bit about Kris Kobach. He was the secretary of state in Kansas. He was known for being a big believer in election fraud. He’s a real character. So introduce me to him, because I know that you you traveled with him a bit.

S4: I did, yeah. So he’s a ultimately terribly unsuccessful and really successful politician, like many people who who bounced this far between Extreme has him. And he got started in politics, very young in Kansas. He worked in the Bush administration, setting up the DHS, came back to Kansas, ran for Congress, flopped, ran for state Senate, flopped. He ran the state party with a focus. And this was important enough 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 seems to be over twenty eight because he ran the state party into the ground. But then he turns around, runs for secretary of state in 2010 and he has a lot of success for a decade and that then he runs for governor in twenty eighteen, narrowly wins the primary and loses badly in the general election. And he pointed out and I quoted him and I think his opponents were annoyed that he got to say this at all. But yeah, he actually got more votes for governor than the last candidate did with the last candidate won. The problem was that Democrats just surged in the suburbs. And and this interview, I thought, was telling because some Republicans might look at that and say, gosh, why did we do so badly in the suburbs? Let’s chase that. His approach was more we did badly in the suburbs in that election, but this time Trump’s popular, he’s on the ballot. We’re going to figure it out. And I say all this because you might ask, how come somebody with these blots out his record become a iconic Republican figure invited by the president to help write his immigration and voting voter fraud policies?

S2: Yeah, because it seems like he’s failing up.

S4: Yeah, well, the overall attitude is that these these ideas can’t fail. They can only be failed. That in general, the idea of making it harder for immigrants to live here in general, the idea of making it harder to just show up to the polls and vote, that those are good concepts. And there’s the concept supported by the president. So the president has never abandoned Kobach, even as Republicans have said this guy can’t win. You got to cut bait so we can get somebody more electable.

S2: Yeah, I mean, he loves looking like a hard liner. Like he I still remember this image of him from when he was running for governor, where he was in a parade. Yeah. On the back of a jeep with a giant machine gun. He just sort of seems to delight in the conservative tropes. And I feel like we’re at this moment where the country is thinking about how much it wants to delight in those conservative tropes. And so it’s it’s interesting to me that he’s running again, because it just makes me wonder, like, are you making any attempt to moderate your position or. No, it’s just doubling down.

S4: No, because he believes that this is what the state wants and that when it’s been denied that it’s been a fluke, I’ve not seen any watering down.

S7: So you have Kobach just basically reiterating, look, you know, I was with Trump when it was hard and who else was I endorsed him early and I was advising him and all that the anti Kobach campaign is left with is, well, Trump didn’t give him a job in his administration, so he must not be that great. And meanwhile, Roger Marshall also agrees with Trump on everything.

S2: Well, let’s talk about Roger Marshall, because he may end up cinching the nomination. We won’t know until the thing is all over. But he’s definitely the pick of the Washington GOP establishment. Yeah, why?

S7: Well, that he does not have the flaws that Kobach has mean. He’s a veteran and doctor who became a member of Congress. He’s Rotary Club volunteer. I mean, he basically has what you see a lot in this era is the classic Republican biography. But his very typical Republican story came about in the age of Trump.

S9: So he’s he combines I’m a family man and doctor and veteran. You can work well to get stuff done with. I am 110 percent loyal to the president and he will trust me to get his agenda through.

S2: So he’s still a Trump Republican. He’s just not as flashy. He’s just not on the back of a jeep with a machine gun.

S9: That sounds that’s a fair way to put it. Yeah.

S2: Can we talk about the stakes here? I mean, a top lieutenant to Mitch McConnell and said the majority is gone if Kris Kobach is the nominee, is that just panic?

S7: I think there’s panic because of this moment and the need to get as much money as fast as possible. In twenty eighteen, they had the fun of getting to spend on these 10 races and Democratic senators in red or purple states in this year. They’ve they’re on defense everywhere. And 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 being fatigued and and just the ask, I mean, it follows Terezín, let’s say, in the presidential election, Biden was saying, help me, help me, help me with this fund to win Connecticut. The the donor might say, well, right. What am I investing in? Because if he’s losing Connecticut, he’s lost by a landslide. Same thing. Here is 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, in North Carolina, states that the party thought were heading its way.

S1: So far, the president hasn’t endorsed anyone in this race. That’s in spite of the fact that he and Kris Kobach have worked closely together for years, something Kobach talks a lot about on the trail. Is there a chance that the president sort of associates Kris Kobach with loss because he lost that gubernatorial election? And so it’s easier for him to sort of stay out of it?

S3: Yeah, much easier. I think. The president flew to Kansas and he put political capital behind Kobach. It didn’t work. Now, at the same time, Kobach is running video of the twenty eighteen Trump appearance.

S4: This footage of the president singing his praises from a campaign that he lost and the president could make a splash and tell him to stop using it. But we’re in the final hours before the election. He never did.

S2: Hmm. 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, you know, it’s still pretty red and, you know, it’s been going through this transition. You know, Barbara Bollier, the Democratic nominee, assumed nominee for Senate, you know, she transitioned along with a bunch of other women in the state Senate to being Democrats from Republican this year. That state Senate, it passed Medicaid expansion. It seems like the state is evolving in some way. And I wonder if if you’d agree with that.

S3: Well, Kansas has never really been a swing state. I think LBJ was able to win it and that’s it for Democrats. But there was a Democratic tradition in some rural areas that’s pretty gone. So politically, it’s a state that where almost everybody outside the biggest suburbs votes Republican. And for the longest time, the strength the party was in those suburbs was in the suburbs of Wichita, of Topeka, of Kansas City. So it is a more conservative state and it is very heavily white, except for some Latino immigrants in the farming areas. And it’s very pro-life, anti-abortion that’s also been manifested. And so I don’t think it’s been changing as much as the parties have been moving around within the state. So what you’ve seen 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 Republican Party has gone so much further to the right that a lot of them have left it for the for the Democrats.

S2: Dave Weigel, thank you so much for joining me. Oh, thanks for having me again. Dave Weigel covers politics for The Washington Post.

S1: And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt and Daniel Eavis. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here with more. What next? Tomorrow.