Former Republican Helps Put Kansas Senate Seat in Play for Democrats - Bollier for Kansas

Former Republican Helps Put Kansas Senate Seat in Play for Democrats

Barbara Bollier crossed over and hopes enough voters do the same in November; Republicans say she’s too liberal to win in Kansas

By Lindsay Wise

Barbara Bollier is campaigning to become the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Kansas since 1932.

Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier opened a recent telephone town hall in Kansas with a confession: She used to be a Republican.

The way Mrs. Bollier tells it, she didn’t leave the Republican Party so much as the GOP left her. The party she grew up in no longer had room for socially moderate, fiscal conservatives like herself, she says.

“Over time, it became clear to me that I really didn’t have much in common with Republican leadership much anymore, and they had no interest in common-sense policies that would really serve the people of Kansas,” Mrs. Bollier told voters on the conference call. She cited the state GOP’s opposition to Medicaid expansion and former Gov. Sam Brownback’s controversial tax cut experiment, which left Kansas with a giant budget hole.

As a result, Mrs. Bollier said, “I changed parties and found myself a very proud, pragmatic Democrat.”

Republicans say Mrs. Bollier portrays herself as moderate but is actually too liberal for the state, which President Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016.

Her tele-town hall earlier this week was part of a pandemic-safe “virtual bus tour,” as the 62-year-old state senator and retired anesthesiologist campaigns to become the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Kansas since 1932. Democrats have coalesced around Mrs. Bollier as their candidate to occupy the seat now held by Republican Pat Roberts, who is retiring.

A victory for Mrs. Bollier in November would be a major step for Democrats toward taking the Senate from Republicans. Democrats must gain three seats to seize control of the chamber; if Mr. Trump wins re-election, they need four. Democrats have expanded their competitive map by putting in play some Senate races in red-leaning states, including Montana and Georgia, as well as Kansas.

Like other Democrats running for Senate this year, Mrs. Bollier is enjoying a fundraising boom, thanks to a flood of contributions from donors across the country. Already she has posted record-breaking numbers for a Democrat in Kansas, hauling in $2.4 million in the first three months of this year.

That total put her ahead of all her potential rivals in a crowded Republican field that doesn’t include the candidate many in the party wanted: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.Bob Hamilton, the founder of a Kansas plumbing company, collected $2.2 million, most of it from a $2 million personal loan to his own campaign. Rep. Roger Marshall, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, and Dave Lindstrom, a former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end, each raised less than half a million dollars to position themselves for the state’s August primaries.

Kansas has a long history of electing centrist politicians to office, and Mrs. Bollier, who casts herself in that mold, could be the one to break Democrats’ Senate losing streak, said Dan Glickman, a Democrat who represented a congressional district in Wichita that Mr. Pompeo later served.

In Mr. Glickman’s view, Kansas really has three political parties: Democrats, moderate Republicans and very conservative Republicans. If Mrs. Bollier can attract enough disaffected moderate Republicans like herself, she has a chance, he said. Democrats who do so have won statewide—about half of the state’s governors in the past 60 years have been Democrats.

“So I would say that I wouldn’t play the odds right now, but I would say if I were to invest in a potential turnaround race, I’d say Kansas is a real possibility,” Mr. Glickman said.

Kansas Democrats are energized behind Mrs. Bollier’s candidacy after the party regained the governor’s mansion and flipped one of the state’s four congressional seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Mrs. Bollier was raised in an affluent suburb of Kansas City, the daughter of a doctor and nurse. She served for the past decade in the state legislature, where she and other moderate Republicans joined forces with Democrats to push Medicaid expansion and repeal Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts. In 2018, Mrs. Bollier endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly for governor and a few months later switched parties.

Mr. Kobach said that Mrs. Bollier’s Senate bid will fail without at least some Trump voters splitting their tickets, and he is confident they will reject her because of her voting record.

“It’s hard to imagine a person voting for Trump and then voting for a pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-tax candidate” for Senate, Mr. Kobach said.

Ms. Kelly, who defeated Mr. Kobach for the governorship by nearly five percentage points, praised Mrs. Bollier as a principled, independent operator. She doesn’t think that appealing to Trump voters is Mrs. Bollier’s key to victory.

“The winning strategy is, one, to get out the Democrats who are here,” Ms. Kelly said, “and then, two, persuade those independents and moderate Republicans that you’ve got their backs, you share their values—and you’ll deliver for them.”

“It’s hard to imagine a person voting for Trump and then voting for a pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-tax candidate.”— Kris Kobach
Some Kansas voters echo Mrs. Bollier’s disillusionment with the post-Brownback Republican Party in Kansas, and say they are open to voting for her.

Vincent Rogers, 56-year-old warehouse associate from Topeka, described himself as an independent who now leans Democratic. “I haven’t voted for many Republicans of late because I think they’ve gone way too far to the right,” he said.

He said he needs to learn more about Mrs. Bollier. But if it was a choice between her and Mr. Kobach, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, there is no doubt what he would do.

“I would never vote for Kris Kobach for dog catcher,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Kobach previously won crowded Republican primaries in Kansas for Congress and governor, only to lose the general elections to Democrats. That pattern has some Republicans in Kansas and Washington nervous.

Kansas GOP Chairman Mike Kuckelman is concerned enough that he asked three of the Republicans running for Senate to drop out so that Messrs. Marshall and Kobach could go head-to-head in the primary. Mr. Kuckelman explained that he doesn’t want the party to enter the general election with a battered nominee who wasn’t able to garner more than 50% support from Republican voters. So far, no one has quit the race.

Mr. Kuckelman and other Kansas Republican officials have given up hope that Mr. Pompeo might jump in before the June 1 filing deadline.

Mr. Pompeo hasn’t changed his mind since telling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately in January that he wouldn’t run, a person close to him said. Mr. Pompeo also has conveyed to the White House he doesn’t plan to run.

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