Kris Kobach Is Back, and a Kansas Senate Seat May Be Up for Grabs

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LEAWOOD, Kan. — It has been 88 years since Kansas last sent a Democrat to the United States Senate — one of only three Democrats ever to represent the state in the upper chamber.

But this year, in a challenging and unstable political environment for Republicans, party leaders are growing fearful that this reliably Republican stronghold will instead become an expensive, high-stakes battleground that could determine the balance of power in Washington.

Ahead of the August primary, Democrats have largely rallied around Barbara Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist who was until recently a Republican. Republicans, meanwhile, are locked in an intraparty competition that has all of the trappings of a full-out brawl: attack ads, bitter recriminations between the candidates and a party chair who tried to intervene and sparked backlash. At the center of the fireworks is Kris W. Kobach, a hard-line Trump supporter who has been an incendiary presence in Kansas politics for years.

Mr. Kobach is seeking the party’s nomination after losing a bid for governor two years ago, a defeat that embittered many Republicans who felt he hand-delivered the state’s top office to the opposition and who now worry he will do it again with the Senate seat.

“If we’re going to beat ourselves up in a primary with so many candidates spending Kansas Republican donor money, coming out with battle scars, it just makes ourselves more vulnerable,” said Mike Kuckelman, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.

Beyond the local anxiety, a race that might normally pass under the radar nationally is instead drawing the attention of G.O.P. leaders as they try to maintain control of the Senate, an effort that has become increasingly challenging amid rising unemployment and faltering approval of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. With vulnerable incumbents in states like Colorado, Maine and Arizona, the prospect of having to devote time and money to retain a seat in deep-red Kansas is an unwelcome headache that infuriates many Republicans.

The race — to replace the retiring Republican Pat Roberts — may also test whether there are limits to a message centered on fealty to Mr. Trump, even in a strongly conservative state.

Ms. Bollier, a moderate Democratic state senator, represents parts of this well-manicured Kansas City suburb. It is in a congressional district that voted for Mitt Romney for president by around 10 percentage points in 2012, for Hillary Clinton by one point in 2016, and for Representative Sharice Davids, a Democrat, by about 10 percentage points in 2018. It’s the story of many districts that delivered Democrats the House of Representatives that year.

Ms. Bollier still faces enormous difficulties in a state Mr. Trump is expected to win handily. Her support for abortion rights is disqualifying for many religious Kansans. Some business-oriented Republicans dislike their party’s tone on matters like immigration but oppose a Democratic-controlled Senate. And national Democrats consider a number of other seats to be far more competitive, and bigger priorities for investing resources.

But instead of defining Ms. Bollier to their advantage early in the contest, Republicans have largely had to focus on their own messy primary.

The biggest source of Republican anxiety is Mr. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who lost the 2018 governor’s race to Laura Kelly, a Democrat, despite an endorsement from Mr. Trump. He is admired by supporters and reviled by detractors for his severe views on immigration and voting rights — a law requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration, pressed by Mr. Kobach, was recently rejected by a federal appeals court.

“He had no ability to raise the money, to consolidate the different wings of his party, and to turn out any votes — besides that, he did great,” said Scott W. Reed, the senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, referring to Mr. Kobach’s 2018 performance. “It appears Kobach would be a stretch to win a statewide election and would cause a lot of resources to be diverted.”

A number of prominent Republicans — especially Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader — had hoped that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, would enter the race, something he has resisted. Once the June 1 filing deadline passes and the field is finalized, a number of organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plan to assess potential endorsements and spending in the race.

Representative Roger Marshall of the “Big First” District — the sprawling rural area that has launched the careers of statewide leaders including former Senator Bob Dole — is seeking to emerge as the consensus choice, and there are increasing signs that key party leaders and groups are inclined to coalesce around him.

Mr. Marshall is armed with an endorsement from Mr. Dole, who remains beloved by many Kansans, and support from a growing list of significant organizations, including the Kansas Farm Bureau. And anti-Kobach Republicans see him as a more traditional if deeply conservative candidate who doesn’t inspire the same visceral reactions Mr. Kobach does.

“There are lots of people that have been concerned about this,” said former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican whom Mr. Kobach narrowly defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. “I’m supporting Congressman Marshall because he’s the one who can most readily, stably defend the seat.”

Mr. Marshall, an obstetrician-gynecologist, is emphasizing his strong opposition to abortion rights, his work on agricultural matters and his support of Mr. Trump.

“If we Kansans send the wrong person to the general election, it could be competitive,” Mr. Marshall said in an interview. “I just don’t think Kansans will make that mistake twice.”

Asked about engaging moderate Republicans who are uncomfortable with Mr. Trump, he replied, “Well, goodness, that wouldn’t be very many.” But, he said, “you compare and contrast. Do you want the left’s radical socialist agenda, or President Trump’s great economy and national security?”

A recent poll conducted by the firm Public Opinion Strategies — for Mr. Marshall’s campaign — showed him with a primary lead over Mr. Kobach, a reversal of March numbers that had shown Mr. Kobach, who is well known in the state and boasts a base of devoted supporters, ahead.

But some national Republicans are unenthusiastic about Mr. Marshall, and underwhelmed by his fund-raising. The political arm of Club for Growth, a conservative outside group, is planning an ad campaign of around $2 million that will cast Mr. Marshall as aligned with the “Mitt Romney wing of the party,” and will criticize his record on matters like big spending, said David McIntosh, the group’s president. Mr. Marshall has countered by saying he votes with Mr. Trump.

The group has not yet endorsed Mr. Kobach, whom Mr. McIntosh called a “strong conservative,” saying earlier this month that the organization was reserving judgment to see what kind of campaign Mr. Kobach would assemble.

Several other Republicans are running. In a controversial move, Mr. Kuckelman, the state chairman, asked all of them to drop out except for Mr. Marshall and Mr. Kobach — either by sending letters, as The Kansas City Star reported, or in other conversations, Mr. Kuckelman said. It struck some observers as an effort to thwart Mr. Kobach by thinning the field, and as a sign of Republican anxiety about the seat.

On Thursday, State Senate President Susan Wagle said she would not file for the race, citing conversations with national party leaders and a belief that “a divisive primary will only benefit the campaign of Barbara Bollier.”

Mr. Kuckelman said he was focused on limiting infighting. But he acknowledged that he had heard concerns about Mr. Kobach, including about his potentially negative effect on Republican candidates in other races, though he said he had no data to prove that.

“I have absolutely seen those comments and I understand them and I will not be without a plan,” he said.

In an interview, Mr. Kobach dismissed those who said his 2018 performance was predictive of his 2020 general election viability; he pointed out that Kansas had elected several Democratic governors in recent years. He learned new tactics from his defeat, he said, and suggested that the Kansas electorate that shows up for Mr. Trump will embrace Republicans down the ballot, too.

“One of the key elements of the 2020 general election will be President Trump versus Joe Biden — where does the Senate candidate stand on those issues?” he said. “People know my long record of working with the president, and I think people understand that I will be supporting the president and carrying the ball for him in the Senate.”

Mr. Kobach said that he discusses immigration and “election security issues” with the president and that they had spoken this month. He declined to say whether they had discussed an endorsement (Mr. Marshall has also been in touch with Mr. Trump this year and hopes for his endorsement). The White House and the Trump campaign had no comment.

In contrast, Ms. Bollier sought distance from her national party during an interview from her home in Mission Hills, Kan. She declined to say whom she had supported in the presidential primary, or whether it would be helpful for Joseph R. Biden Jr. to campaign with her in the general election, emphasizing her interest in appearing with locals and noting the governor’s endorsement.

“Most people are in more toward the middle,” said Ms. Bollier, who, in some of her fund-raising appeals, is already running against Mr. Kobach. “Most people want to see our elected officials working together.”

Kansas Republicans argue that moderate Mission Hills has little in common, culturally or politically, with the vast majority of the state.

“Her views might work in that very small area where she was a Kansas senator from,” Mr. Kuckelman said. “She cannot win a statewide election running when she’s exposed as having the liberal views she does.”

But some are more worried, for now, about Republicans’ statewide prospects.

“It’s something everybody’s talking about: This has emerged as a political hot spot,” said Mr. Reed of the Chamber of Commerce. “It’s one that didn’t need to be a hot spot. It should be a layup for a Republican.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.