(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.
The loss was unthinkable to many Republicans in this solidly red state, fueling the argument that Democrats could win a Senate seat in Kansas for the first time since George McGill lost a re-election bid in 1938. Thus the argument that Kobach and his general election vulnerability is the best thing to happen to Kansas Democrats in generations.
Whomever wins the nomination, they face stiff competition from Republican-turned-Democrat Barbara Bollier. A doctor who has served in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature, Bollier was elected three times as a Republican before switching parties in 2018.
But Vonnahme doesn’t see her receiving much of an advantage from the bitter primary on the Republican side.
“Kansas has an unusual party system because of a division between conservative and moderate Republicans that has meant it operated more as a three-party system. Bollier was part of that moderate Republican caucus in the Kansas General Assembly. She’ll be looking to pull in crossover voters from the moderate faction of the Kansas Republican Party,” Vonnahme said.
The Civiqs/Daily Kos poll from June showed Bollier polling within 1% of each of the main three Republican contenders, with the Democrat staking marginal leads over both Kobach and Hamilton but trailing Marshall.
An earlier poll from Public Policy Polling/Politico in April only asked about a potential Bollier and Kobach matchup, and had Bollier up 5% over Kobach.
The challenge Bollier faces from perennial candidate Robert Tillman in the Democratic primary is not seen as serious.
Not to be outdone by the drama in the Senate race, the Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District has received a fair share of national attention itself.
Freshman Congressman Steve Watkins faced a bombshell only weeks before the election when he was charged with three felonies after a local newspaper discovered that he listed the location of a UPS Store as his home address on voter registration forms. Adding to the intrigue, the charges were announced just minutes before Watkins was to appear on a televised debate with his two Republican primary opponents.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Watkins said during the debate, adding that he thought the timing was “very suspicious.”
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay, the fellow Republican who filed the charges, is seen as tied to Watkins’ main opponent, Jake LaTurner.
Watkins barely squeaked by in his 2018 election to the House of Representatives, leading a seven-candidate field with 26% of the vote in the GOP primary before winning over Democrat Paul Davis by less than 1% in the general.
The conventional wisdom is that LaTurner would shore up the seat for Republicans while a re-nomination of the unpredictable and gaffe-prone Watkins could lead to further Democratic gains in the state. LaTurner is currently state treasurer and had filed to run for the open Senate seat before party leaders convinced him to drop out of that race and challenge Watkins instead.
Beatty said Tuesday’s results will say a lot about the mood of voters.
“Are they sick of the controversy surrounding the incumbent Steve Watkins, with his three felony voter fraud charges, and thus will go for one of his challengers, or will they stick with Watkins, who has allied his campaign with Trump’s like a hand in a glove?” Beatty said.
Topeka mayor Michelle De La Isla is expected to triumph over James K. Windholz, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, on the Democratic side.
The trailblazing De La Isla, the first Latina and single mother to serve as mayor of Topeka, looks to offer voters a distinct choice come November and could further what is a changing electorate in eastern Kansas. In 2018, Rep. Sharice Davids became the first Native American to serve in Congress — along with Rep. Deb Haaland — when she won election in the neighboring 3rd District.
As has happened in several states since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, voters might have to wait several days for the results of these close races.
Though polls officially close at 7 p.m. Tuesday, the state will accept all valid mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday and arrive in election offices before 5 p.m. on Friday.
“With the high number of advance by-mail ballots, we anticipate the results in close elections could fluctuate more than in previous years,” Katie Koupal, deputy assistant secretary of state, told Courthouse News.
Earlier this year, Kansas received $4.6 million in CARES Act funding for the 2020 election. According to Koupal, $2.6 million of that has been used to reimburse county election expenses caused by Covid-19 and $1 million was spent on masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray for polling places.
“Voters are strongly encouraged to be safe and follow the recommended safety protocols of health professionals. However, no voter will be turned away for wearing, or not wearing, a mask,” Koupal said.
All voters in Kansas can request absentee ballots without having to provide a reason.