Kansas Democrats may have their best shot in decades to win a Senate seat in 2020,lifted by a flood of money and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s apparent exit from from the state’s political scene.
Democrat Barbara Bollier’s campaign announced Tuesday it raised more than $1.1 million in the final three months of 2019, a record for a Kansas Democrat and a signal that the party leaders regard the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. PatRoberts as in play.
Bollier’s announcement comes the day after Pompeo, national Republicans’ preferred candidate for the race, told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he would not run.
The Republican candidates in the field have struggled to raise money for the open seat race, as speculation about Pompeo’s plans kept donors from making contributions.
Democratic leaders, on the other hand, coalesced early around Bollier, a retired physician and state lawmaker who switched parties in 2018.
A string of high-profile endorsements and fundraising events — including one with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in Washington last month — have helped Bollier gain a significant cash advantage. Manhattan Mayor Pro Tem Usha Reddi is also seeking the nomination, but Bollier has the backing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the national party’s main campaign arm.
Bollier’s campaign said she raised the $1.1 million from about 4,500 donors, including the candidate, who donated $50,000. The campaign will file its report with the Federal Election Commission later this month.
“I’m proud of the broad, bipartisan support we have received from across the state so far in this historic campaign,” Bollier said in a statement. “This demonstrates how excited Kansans are about this race and just how ready they are for an independent, voice of reason representing them in Washington.”
No candidate of either party in the race has raised a comparable amount during a three-month period.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist for the University of Kansas, said Bollier will have her best opportunity to win the seat if former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the GOP’s unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2018, captures the Republican nomination.
“Building the financial war chest and campaign infrastructure, so that if August rolls around and Kobach’s the nominee she looks like an attractive opportunity for Democrats to invest,” Miller said.
Kobach, in an interview Tuesday, disputedthe idea that he would be a weak general election candidate and said he has no fears about a potential matchup against Bollier. He said that while Kansas switches between Republican and Democratic governors, voters are much more conservative on federal issues.
“The forces at work in a Senate election are not the same as the forces at work in a gubernatorial race,” Kobach said.
Kobach said Pompeo’s decision solidifies his frontrunner status, and noted that polls have shown him at the top of the current GOP field. He said some undecided voters may support other contenders, but that he doesn’t expect that to change the ordering of candidates.
“I think national Republican elites are going to realize the Republican voters of Kansas are going to make this decision on their own. They will have less ability to try to guide the election from Washington,” Kobach said Tuesday.
But Republican leaders are wary about Kobach as a potential nominee. The National Republican Senatorial Committee took the unusual step to condemn his candidacy the day he announced.
Miller said Rep. Roger Marshall, as the congressman in Kansas’ 1st congressional district, is the most obvious candidate for establishment Republicans to rally around as the anti-Kobach ahead of the August primary. Roberts, Sen. Jerry Moran and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole all held the House seat before serving in the Senate.
“This is his chance to now develop a pulse or the chance for super PACs to come in and prop up his campaign. If you have seven months until the primary, you have seven months to build Roger Marshall into a viable statewide product and to tear Kobach down at the same time,” Miller said.
“I think the key thing right now to watch is how Marshall develops his image as a candidate. Kobach is very well-defined. You know what that product is and Kobach is very good at the theater aspect of politics,” Miller said.
Marshall was scheduled to meet with McConnell Tuesday afternoon, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. However, the two sources disagreed about whether Marshall or McConnell requested the meeting.
His campaign had $1.9 million cash on hand as of October, a huge financial edge over other GOP campaigns. Marshall has not yet announced his fundraising total for the last three months of 2019 to compare against Bollier’s haul.
Marshall was the first candidate to air television ads in the race, including a spot that touts his vote in favor of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. The ad features footage from a trade agreement event where the congressman appeared on stage with President Donald Trump and Pompeo.
Marshall, who stressed his admiration for Pompeo, said he’s had a flood of interest in his campaign following the news that he ruled out a race.
“Our phones are just blowing up,” Marshall said, claiming that his campaign manager received 180 text messages in the span of two hours.
Marshall, who led Republican candidates in fundraising going into this year, acknowledged that speculation about Pompeo had hurt his ability to raise money.
“I think it affected it from Day 1 that there was a lot of people sitting on the sidelines just waiting to make sure,” Marshall said.
Those donors who had remained on the sidelines will have an opportunity to compare Senate candidates at a debate scheduled for Feb 1 at the Kansas Republican Party’s annual convention.
“We’re going to work our tail off to be prepared for that debate and I think I’d just communicate what our vision is for Kansas,” Marshall. “And to me, I’m more focused on making sure that we keep a Republican majority in the Senate, that we keep our eyes on Barbara Bollier.”
In addition to Marshall and Kobach, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, Kansas Board of Education member Steve Roberts, former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Lindstrom, and conservative writer Bryan Pruitt are campaigning for the GOP nomination.
Kansas Republican Party chairman Mike Kuckelman called the debate and convention a “real kickoff” the 2020 election season. He said Republicans who attend the convention affect voters throughout the state, adding that it’s critical they meet the candidates.
State Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who managed Kobach’s 2018 campaign for governor, said the debate is important “because I think it does give your base something to talk about and if you’re candidate does very well then there’s a lot of pride associated with that among your activists.”
He added that “Kris does very well in debates.”
Pompeo’s decision may also help lure additional Republicans into the race. Wink Hartman, a Wichita businessman who was Kobach’s 2018 running mate, said Tuesday he is “strongly considering” entering the race.
“I think there’s a decent-sized window for me because of my values and the conservative values,” said Hartman, who promised to make his decision this month.
In the meantime, Democrats say they’re confident Bollier can make the race competitive regardless of which Republican emerges from the fray.
“I think most Democrats feel pretty good about Bollier and the case that she can make, whether it’s Kobach or Marshall or Wagle,” said state Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat.