Gianni Sarra’s Senate Series: KANSAS

(Ichabod / Wikimedia Commons)

Control of the US Senate, to be decided as just over a third of the body’s seats are up for grabs in November, will be a key determinant of how the next two years in US politics go. Republicans are largely on the defensive, with tricky defensive tasks in states such as MaineArizona and North Carolina, and only rare offensive opportunities in states such as Alabama. If Republicans want to hold the Senate – a necessary step in either protecting Trump or frustrating Biden – they need to make sure the playing field does not expand beyond control. 

Unfortunately for the Republicans, there are several states that are normally safely in their column where Democrats are feeling cautiously optimistic about the chance of an upset. Out of those, perhaps one of the most plausible paths to a surprise victory, and with it a crucial extra step in determining Senate control, is the deep-red state of Kansas. Though normally Republican, Democrats can win there by dividing the state’s moderate and conservative voting blocs and getting lucky with who the Republicans nominate. That recipe allowed them to win the governorship in 2018. Now, it could win them their first Senate election here since 1932. 

Kansas is a solidly Republican state. The state is, in Presidential elections, currently about thirteen points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole according to The Cook Political Report’s analysis. This Republican dominance extends to all levels of government. Kansas has the longest streak of Republican Senators in the nation, having last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1932, a currently unrivalled streak of one-party Senate domination. 

The state was the subject of the popular 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?. Author Thomas Frank argued that a focus on divisive ‘culture war’ issues helped enable conservative Republicans to win states such as Kansas and implement economic policies that are of little value, if not actively detrimental, to the majority of the state’s voters. The ‘liberal elite’, a label Frank himself was given by many critics of the book, are then treated as a strawman to blame for whatever problems arise from such policies. National Democratic leaders in the Clinton era, Frank argued, did not challenge the fiscally conservative economic assumptions used by Republicans, instead restricting most political disagreement to these cultural and social issues. 

Frank argued that the late 19th century tradition of left-wing populism that once defined Kansan politics had disappeared. Democrats such as the then-Governor, and Obama’s future Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius could still win in Kansas by prioritising economic and “bread and butter” issues. In local Kansas politics, however, Frank’s hypothesised divide between socially-liberal Democrats and socially-conservative Republicans, who nonetheless agreed on key economic issues, took place mostly within the Republican Party. With the Republican nomination tantamount to election in most of the state, the “moderate” and “conservative” wings of the party fought for dominance. 

There is good reason to be sceptical to attributing the politics of any one state to a single hypothesis as simple as the lure of cultural conservatism over economic interests, and parts of Frank’s critique are dated, especially regarding the lack of economic differences between the parties. Frank’s arguments had a lot of impact, and one component that is undoubtedly true is that many of the political battles that are normally waged between parties are, in Kansas, waged within the state Republican Party. 

While on the surface, the state’s Republican leanings in Presidential races have remained constant for years, there has been considerable political upheaval within the state. Much of this is due to the rural-urban divide that the rest of the country is seeing. Bar some growing Hispanic communities in the southwest of the state, Democrats are slipping further and further into electoral oblivion in sparsely populated and heavily agricultural rural Kansas. Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly competitive in a handful of urban and suburban counties in the east of the state, even though some of the state’s urban areas, such as Wichita, remain conservative compared to other similarly sized cities. Though Republicans usually win in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county and home to many Kansas City suburbs, Democrats have been increasingly competitive there. Rural and suburban voters are switching between the parties, essentially. 

Part of this upheaval, however, is more specific to Kansas, and stems from that moderate-conservative coalition within the Kansas Republican Party coming apart. The state’s Republican Governor from 2011 to 2018, Sam Brownback, was a leader of the conservative faction, known for strict social conservatism and opposition to abortion and LGBT+ rights. Upon election, Brownback began what he called a “red-state experiment”, with steep tax cuts designed to spur economic growth. The experiment was a failure. It failed to deliver the promised economic growth, but did cause massive drops in revenue. In turn, this meant Brownback presided over dramatic cuts to state budgets such as schools. In 2014, he narrowly won reelection against Democrat Paul Davis, buoyed by a strong Republican climate, despite dozens of mostly moderate prominent Kansas Republicans endorsing Davis. 

A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the legislature, overruling Brownback’s veto, reversed many of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, and he left office to serve the Trump administration as its religious freedom czar. By the time Brownback left office, he was one of the most unpopular Governors in the country. Brownback was very much testing the limits of conservative government, as outlined in Frank’s book, and found that they did, in fact, exist. He was succeeded by his Lieutenant Governor, Jeff Colyer, but Colyer would go on to lose the Republican primary to Kris Kobach. Kobach, then Kansas’s Secretary of State, is known for his anti-immigrant xenophobia, Islamophobia, and support for false claims, frequently parroted by Trump, that endemic voter fraud exists within the US and requires draconian voter suppression measures to thwart. Kobach is beloved by the conservative and Trumpist wings of the Kansas Republican Party, but loathed by the moderates. In a strong pro-Democrat year, Democratic nominee Laura Kelly went on to defeat Kobach in the general, delivering Democrats a rare red-state governorship. 

Kansas Democrats have reason to feel confident and emboldened after a successful 2018. In addition to Kelly’s win, Democrat Sharice Davids won the congressional district based around the Kansas City metropolitan area. Though Paul Davis came short in his bid to win the neighbouring congressional district, taking in the east of the state including the liberal-leaning cities of Topeka and Lawrence, the Republican who defeated him, Steve Watkins, has been embroiled in ethics controversies. Despite Watkins’s district leaning rather solidly Republican, it is less right-wing than the state as a whole, and Democrats are likely to nominate Michelle De La Isla, Mayor of Topeka, to take on Watkins. There is a small yet not implausible chance of an upset win for Democrats there. 

Democrats, however, are mainly feeling excitement about the US Senate race and finally ending the Republicans’ unbroken 88-year streak of Senate victories in Kansas. Incumbent Senator Pat Roberts is retiring. Roberts had had an unusually competitive reelection battle in 2014 after it emerged he did not actually own a home in Kansas. Democrats stood aside and coalesced around independent candidate Greg Orman. Kansas’s Republican lean and the pro-Republican mood of 2014 ultimately meant Roberts won with room to spare. 

A large field of Kansas Republicans are running for the seat vacated by Roberts, most notably among them Kobach. Kansas and national Republicans alike are fearful that Kobach’s divisiveness could throw away a potentially safe seat. There was talk of luring Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, back to Kansas to run for the seat. With Trump’s blessing, the logic went, Pompeo would have cleared the field and romped to victory. Pompeo passed on that invitation, and now establishment Republicans are trying to clear the field for US Representative Roger Marshall. Marshall represents the safely Republican “Big First”, a district so large it spans two time zones and covers nearly half of the state. It has elected other future Senators before such as Roberts, former Presidential nominee Bob Dole, and Kansas’s other Senator Jerry Moran. Marshall has form for defeating more extreme opponents in primaries: he entered Congress by defeating Tim Huelskamp, a right-wing firebrand who lost his Agriculture Committee appointment due to his inability to play nice with his Republican colleagues. 

Marshall is a rather more generic Republican than the likes of Kobach and Huelskamp, but there are worries he might not be able to take on Kobach with the field as divided as it currently is. While State Treasurer Jake La Turner and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle have been persuaded to drop out, with La Turner instead running against Watkins, multiple candidates remain in the field, including businessman Bob Hamilton and Kansas Turnpike Authority chairman Dave Lindstrom. Kobach’s best hope of being the Republican nominee is if the anti-Kobach vote remains split, but Hamilton is spending heavily to stay in contention. 

Democrats, meanwhile, look set to nominate State Senator Barbara Bollier. Bollier was first elected to her State Senate seat, based in suburban Johnson County, as a moderate Republican in 2016. She quickly fell out with her party, though, endorsing Democratic congressional candidates and switching parties officially in December 2018, citing issues such as transgender rights, education funding and Medicaid expansion as areas where she was increasingly out of step with her old party. Most other Democratic candidates had dropped out either before or after Bollier entered the race, and the message behind nominating her is simple: other moderates should join her in leaving the Republican Party and joining the Democrats. 

Bollier is seen as a strong recruit, and yet there is no question that Republicans are favoured to hold the Senate seat. Kansas is perhaps a bit more complex in its conservatism and a bit more idiosyncratic in its party preferences than most solidly Republican states, but it is still a Republican state. Many remember the excitement, and ultimately disappointment, that Democrats had in both the 2014 races and in Watkins’s seat last cycle. Bollier’s polling strongly against the entire Republican field, but the conventional wisdom is that her most plausible path to victory is Kobach winning the nomination and the national mood remaining rather hostile to Trump. This is largely out of Bollier’s control. That Democrats understand the importance of being primed and ready to exploit a Republican stumble here is sound strategy, and forcing the Republicans to play defence in a state that should be a lock for them is a good position for Kansas Democrats to be in. 

Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.  He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.