TOPEKA, Kan. – Republicans brimmed with newfound confidence Wednesday about keeping an open Senate seat in Kansas after establishment-backed Rep. Roger Marshall won the party's nomination, advancing to face an unusually formidable Democrat in a tough year for the GOP.
Marshall's first tasks were quickly refilling his campaign treasury and rebuilding Republican unity after an often-bitter primary campaign. But he and other Republicans immediately previewed the fall campaign in which they are expected to use the threat of Democrats capturing a Senate majority to try and blunt Barbara Bollier's efforts to woo GOP-leaning independent voters and moderate Republicans.
Republicans are trying to keep their 53-47 Senate majority with competitive races in other states such as Arizona, Colorado and Maine and the coronavirus pandemic causing President Donald Trump's standing with voters to slide. GOP leaders had feared that the Kansas seat would be in play if lightning-rod conservative Kris Kobach won the nomination after losing the 2018 Kansas governor's race.
But Marshall prevailed comfortably and won 85 of the state's 105 counties, including four of its five most populous ones. Trump, who had refused to intervene in the primary despite prodding from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tweeted his “Complete and Total Endorsement” of Marshall early Wednesday morning.
“It not only landed butter-side up, but I think it was toasted and had a little cinnamon on it — cinnamon toast,” said retiring four-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who had endorsed Marshall. “We avoided a situation where it would be very difficult for us.”
Bollier, a state senator and retired Kansas City-area anesthesiologist, raised more than $8.2 million through July; her campaign said the total is now $9 million and that she began the fall campaign with $4.5 million cash. Marshall, a two-term congressman for western and central Kansas, said he had about $600,000 in cash when Tuesday's polls closed, after raising about $2.9 million ahead of the primary.
Marshall can count on a more-robust statewide Republican organization, and registered GOP voters outnumber Democrats by more than 3-to-2. The GOP has won every Senate race in Kansas since 1932, and Roberts won a contentious race in 2014 by nearly 11 percentage points largely by arguing that Republicans couldn't recapture a Senate majority that year without his reelection.
“THE issue is who controls the Senate majority. It's going to be razor-thin one way or the other," Marshall said. “We have to have a Republican senator from Kansas to keep the Senate majority.”
Bollier said Wednesday that it didn't matter to her which GOP candidate won the primary because she is running as an independent and commonsense moderate who can work with Republicans. She was a lifelong GOP moderate until she switched parties at the end of 2018.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Helen Kalla called Marshall “an underwhelming candidate” who is “stumbling into the general election.” McConnell's first choice for the GOP nominee was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Wichita-area congressman, but Pompeo definitively declined to enter the race in January.
“The bottom line is, I will be a person who listens and I am a voice of reason,” Bollier said Wednesday. “They're (voters) going to have a very definitive choice.”
Bollier's fundraising has worried Republicans because she has raised more than the top GOP candidates combined — and more than enough for a competitive race in a low-cost media state like Kansas. She has seen a flood of donations from outside Kansas, indicating that Democrats nationwide are eager to flip the seat.
The late date of the state's primary gives Republicans a limited amount of time for attacks on Bollier to sink in with voters well after she's used her own ads to build a positive profile. The GOP primary also featured a political action committee with Democratic ties spending more than $4 million on ads that aggressively attacked Marshall as a “swamp creature” and “fake, fake, fake.”
“What happened yesterday is that Republicans lived to fight another day,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and campaign manager. “Regardless of how red Kansas is, the Democrat has been running unopposed for practically a year. And there will have to be a concerted effort to make sure Marshall is heavily fortified.”
But many Democrats saw Kobach as easier for Bollier to beat, thanks to a longtime advocacy of tough immigration restrictions and brash style that alienate independent and moderate GOP voters.
“Marshall does not have a caustic personality,” said Joan Wagnon, a former Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman and Topeka mayor. “He doesn't engender that ‘Oh, God, we’ve got to get rid of him,' like even the Republicans were feeling about Kobach.”
Kobach on Wednesday attributed his defeat to attacks by PACs aligned with McConnell and the GOP establishment. But he said his supporters will back Marshall instead not voting in November.
“Of course, they'll be going to vote for President Trump, so staying home's not an option,” Kobach said.
Kelly Arnold, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman, predicted that Republicans will unite quickly behind Marshall because of the threat to the party's Senate majority. He said Marshall's nomination “successfully stopped” Democrats from flipping the seat.
“It deflates the Democrats' balloon,” Arnold said.
Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington also contributed.
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