(CN) — Two races to watch in the Kansas primary election happening Tuesday highlight the Republican Party’s desire to harness intense but limited enthusiasm for far-right fringe political personalities while nominating institutionalist candidates who are seen as more electable in November.
In a contest among 11 candidates to replace retiring four-term Senator Pat Roberts, current Representative Roger Marshall and plumbing entrepreneur Bob Hamilton will face off against firebrand former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who made a national name for himself by pushing hardline policies meant to curtail immigration and enact voter ID laws.
“This race is totally up for grabs,” said Bob Beatty, professor and chair of the political science department at Washburn University in Topeka. “The fact that so many PACs are coming in so late in the game tells us that no candidate has taken a clear lead and there are a lot of undecided voters.”
In the last month advertising in the race has taken a strange turn, as a group that was thought to be liberal, Sunflower State PAC, has been running five different ads in support of Kobach that hit Marshall hard. Meanwhile, a PAC allied with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a $1.2 million ad buy in support of Marshall.
“The [Sunflower State PAC] ad campaign has been effective in that the ads stand out and are clever. Its impact could be key in eroding some of Marshall’s support. The reason that Democrats are involved at all is because of Kobach. Polls have shown Kobach to be a weaker candidate against the Democrat, Barbara Bollier, in a general election,” Beatty said in an interview.
The presumed weakness of Kobach as a front-runner is why Republican leaders campaigned for months for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run for the seat in his home state. Pompeo was seen as a shoo-in, but ultimately decided to stay in his current job.
A poll from Civiqs/Daily Kos taken between May 30 and June 1 had Kobach staked to a tentative lead in the primary with 35% of likely voters saying they support him. Marshall polled at 26% and Hamilton with 15%. Sixteen percent of voters were still undecided.
Political experts see the race as more unpredictable, however.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if either Marshall or Kobach came through,” said Greg Vonnahme, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in an interview. “Ordinarily low turnout would favor a candidate like Kobach and higher turnout would favor Marshall. But with uncertainty over Covid, and Trump’s denunciations of mail ballots, there is a greater-than-usual degree of uncertainty about who’s going to show up.”
Beatty, the Washburn University political scientist, also cautioned to keep an eye on Bob Hamilton.
“If the wind is blowing in any way, it could be blowing at the back of Bob Hamilton, the now-famous plumber. Hamilton very well could be the surprise on election night. If he doesn’t win, then he certainly will take away a big chunk of voters from Marshall and Kobach. Whichever one it is could dictate who wins,” Beatty said.
Hamilton’s campaign website touts that he “hasn’t served a day in office” and has built a successful plumbing business in the Kansas City area. His campaign slogan plays up his outsider status in the race: “If you want to make a mess in Washington, hire a professional politician. But if you want to drain the swamp, hire a plumber.”
Kobach, a former chairman of the state GOP, was twice elected Kansas secretary of state. He led President Donald Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity as vice chair in 2017 — the group that was meant to bolster Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud disbanded a year later without issuing a report — before losing the gubernatorial contest in 2018 to Democrat Laura Kelly by five points.