Published July 20th, 2020 at 5:26 PM
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kris Kobach, a lightning rod throughout his political career, finds himself at the center of a Republican primary battle for the U.S. Senate. That includes independent groups spending millions on ads for and against him.
One of those efforts comes from Democrats, who think a primary win for Kobach gives their party the best chance to take over the seat for the first time since the Great Depression. They’re boosting the former Kansas secretary of state as the race’s one true conservative while attacking his chief competitor, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, as a “phony” and a “fake.”
The gambit has Marshall, a retired doctor and two-term congressman from western Kansas, crying foul.
“Democrats think Kansas Republicans are stupid,” Marshall said in a guest editorial in Sunday’s Topeka Capital-Journal. “It’s a bunch of smug Washington elites thinking they can sneak one past you.”
It worked in 2012 when Democrats intervened in Missouri’s Republican U.S. Senate primary to help Todd Aiken. Running from the party’s right wing, Aiken won the nomination. But controversial statements about abortion cost him in the general election, which he lost to incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.
“All the signs are there, it’s almost the same ad they ran for Todd Aiken in 2012,” said Eric Pahls, Marshall’s campaign manager.
The Sunflower State PAC, a recently formed group with ties to a Democratic media firm in Virginia, is orchestrating the anti-Marshall campaign. Its treasurer is the same Lawrence attorney who once served as treasurer of former Kansas Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ PAC, the Bluestem Fund.
Meanwhile, another new group with ties to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is spearheading an ad offensive against Kobach. The Plains PAC is spending $3 million to convince Republican primary voters that Kobach’s loss to Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 governor’s race and “ties to toxic white nationalists” would make him a risky nominee.
The charge connecting Kobach to white nationalists stems from a 2019 story by the Kansas City Star, which reported that his gubernatorial campaign had paid $500 to Joe Suber, an Olathe man who had regularly posted on a white nationalist website.
A spokesman for Kobach said the campaign “immediately severed ties” with the independent contractor when the posts were discovered.
Both of the recently formed groups are super PACS that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Federal election rules require them to disclose their donors, but that information often isn’t made public until after the elections in which the money is spent.
Kobach led the race early, but recent polls have Marshall ahead.
The proxy battles being waged by the competing PACS suggest that Kobach is still within striking distance of Marshall, said David Kensinger, a longtime Republican strategist who ran campaigns for former Kansas governor and U.S. senator Sam Brownback.
“With a fractured primary field, it’s mathematically possible for him (Kobach) to eke out the narrowest of pluralities as he did in 2018,” Kensinger said.
Kobach’s win over Gov. Jeff Colyer in 2018 was the narrowest in Republican gubernatorial primary history.
Eleven candidates are running for the GOP senate nomination. But only four appear to have the money or visibility to be competitive.
Dave Lindstrom and Bob Hamilton are potential wild cards.
Lindstrom is a former player for the Kansas City Chiefs who served on the Johnson County Commission from 2003 to 2013.
Hamilton is the founder of a prosperous Kansas City area plumbing company who’s spending millions to bankroll his self-described “outsider” campaign.
In a television ad that’s airing frequently in the closing weeks of the campaign, Hamilton aligns himself with President Trump and says career politicians like Kobach and Marshall can’t help shake-up the establishment because “they are the establishment.”
More candidates are competing for the Republican nomination this year because incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring after nearly 40 years in Congress.
Roberts’ retirement, Trump’s sinking poll numbers and other factors are threatening the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
Democrats are hoping to take control by flipping GOP held seats in swing states like Colorado, Maine and Arizona.
If in addition to those races Republicans “start blowing states like Kansas, Alabama or South Carolina,” Kensinger said, “the math becomes almost impossible.”
Establishment Republicans have been lining up behind Marshall for months. Several groups with outsized influence in GOP circles are also backing him. They include the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansans for Life and the U.S Chamber of Commerce.
The New York Times has reported that President Trump, who endorsed Kobach in 2018 bid for governor, is also now working behind the scenes to help Marshall.
Kensigner is among those who believe Marshall would give Republicans their best chance of holding the seat. He said Kobach’s loss in the governor’s race and his failed bid to upset Democratic then-U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore in 2004 provide “real-world evidence” that Kobach “could be the first Republican to lose a Senate race in Kansas in over 80 years.”
Kobach rejects that analysis, pointing to the two statewide races he won for secretary of state.
“There’s no doubt that I’ll be able to win in the general election,” he said. “But that’s the only argument they’ve got, so they keep saying it over and over again.”
The winner of the GOP primary will face presumptive Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier in the November general election.
Bollier is a state senator from Johnson County who left the Republican Party in 2018. Without a primary fight, she’s been busy raising money, raking in $3.7 million in contributions in the most recent reporting period. That’s the largest amount ever raised in a single quarter by a Kansas candidate for any office.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.