Kansas' Crowded and Controversial GOP Primaries
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Embracing Trump leads to more lost contests. Are these leading indicators?
In the midst of a divided political climate for the GOP, many conservatives have turned their attention to the Kansas primary contests.
The August 4th contests in Kansas resulted in losses for far-right candidates Kris Kobach and Steve Watkins, revealing polarization that could be problematic for the Republican party beyond the Trump presidency.
Though controversial, Kobach has been a political mainstay in Kansas for the last several election cycles. His politics closely align with those of President Trump and come down particularly hard on issues of immigration and voting rights; views which have alienated more centrist Republicans.
The former Kansas Secretary of State has run for office multiple times, including for governor in 2018. Kobach won the Republican nomination, but lost the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly. Top Republicans worried that this year’s Senate race, in which Kobach sought the Republican nomination, would have a similar outcome.
Though Kansas is a dependably Republican state, growing concerns among conservatives about the President threaten to divide the party and thus jeopardize the state’s position as a Republican stronghold (1). Because Kobach is so polarizing, his nomination would have opened the door for a Democrat to win the Senate seat in Kansas for the first time in 88 years.
Top Senate Republicans rallied around Roger Marshall, Kobach’s right-of-center opponent, while Trump declined to endorse either candidate (2). Although Marshall is more of a traditional Republican, he has a history that may dog him in the November's general election (2). In 2008, he was convicted of reckless driving and battery (2). However, this charge was erased by the judge and replaced by a lesser charge thanks to the help of a business partner's son, a county attorney (2). Regardless of this history, Kobach lost to Marshall in the Republican primary.
In November, Marshall will face Democrat Barbara Bollier. Kansas has been deeply red for many election cycles, but the list of available GOP candidates to run for the open U.S. Senate seat (including the "he's running/he's-not-running" campaign teasers from current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) have led political analysts to reclassify this U.S. Senate race from 'likely' to 'lean' Republican (3). And, Bollier appears to be running a strong enough campaign to be worthy of a win. As a former moderate-Republican turned Democrat (with her 2018 public endorsement of then-candidate/now Governor Laura Kelly), she may attract enough moderate voters to flip the state and make history as the first Democratic woman to serve as a U.S. Senator from Kansas (4).
Meanwhile, Republican Incumbent Steve Watkins faced voter fraud charges during his campaign for reelection to Congress (5) that prompted similar concerns from the Republican party. Watkins was narrowly elected to Congress to represent a reliably Republican district in 2016. This year he faced Dennis Taylor and Jake LaTurner in the primary.
After Watkins was charged with voter fraud, Republicans worried that his nomination could hurt the party’s chances of beating Democratic nominee Michelle De La Isla. LaTurner ousted Watkins in the primary and will face De La Isla in November (5). De La Isla is the current Mayor of Topeka and has been endorsed by Emily's list (6). She's a very strong candidate and the GOP has reason to be concerned about their chances in this key district.
The results of the primary contests not only illustrate Republican anxieties about the upcoming presidential election, but also point to divisions in the party going forward. Many GOP voters have become disillusioned with the President (7) amidst the current health crisis and accompanying economic recession, but still want to hold on to their Senate majority. Controversy over candidates aligned with Trump could jeopardize Republican seats at all levels of government. However, conservatives’ rejection of Kobach and Watkins also indicate that party divisions in the GOP will remain long after Trump leaves office (8) (9).