HOLTON, Kan. – Establishment Republican leaders are scrambling to pull out a win in a tense party battle for the nomination in the Kansas Senate race, and they won't be able to count on last-minute help from President Donald Trump.
Trump has signaled to allies and aides that he won't endorse in the primary between Rep. Roger Marshall, the preferred candidate of Washington Republicans, and conservative lightning-rod Kris Kobach. Although GOP leaders believe Kobach's hardline anti-immigration message is too divisive to win a general election — and may jeopardize control of the Senate — Trump has resisted weighing in out of concern for tarnish his own standing with his conservative base, according to two campaign and White House officials.
Trump's neutrality leaves the Kansas primary heading to a tight finish Tuesday under a barrage of attack ads from political action committees. The field is crowded with candidates and is poised to test whether mainstream Republicans can be scared into unifying to block Kobach from eeking out a win.
“If we lose the Senate and everything else goes to hell, we have no firewall,” retiring Sen. Pat Roberts said in an interview, issuing one of the many increasingly dire warnings coming from Republicans. Roberts has endorsed Marshall. “That’s why the Senate race is so important in Kansas.”
Republican leaders have been trying to avoid a Kobach nomination for seven months, but the stakes have increased in recent weeks. As Trump's popularity has slumped, fueled by disapproval of his handling of the pandemic and an economic crash, Republican worries about winning Senate seats have spiked. The once-safe seat in a state where Republicans have won every Senate race since 1932 now looks shaky and a loss the GOP can't afford.
This was a scenario establishment Republicans tried and failed for months to avoid. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run. GOP leaders tried without much success to narrow the number of candidates — which now stands at 11, including self-funding businessman Bob Hamilton.
All the while Democrats have watched gleefully and coalesced around Democrat with credentials that could appeal to Republicans turned off by Kobach. The presumed Democratic pick, state sen. Barbara Bollier, is a retired Kansas City-area anesthesiologist and a former lifelong moderate Republican who made national headlines at the end of 2018 by switching parties. Bollier already has raised more than $8 million, more than the top Republicans combined.
Kobach, meanwhile, has been relying on his loyal base attracted to him by the stance on immigration that hurt his failed 2018 campaign for governor. At a recent stop at a bar and grill in Holton, about a half-hour north of Topeka, an audience of about 20 people applauded when he mentioned his involvement in a group seeking to build privately funded sections of a wall along the U.S border with Mexico. Afterward, some said they admire the take-no-prisoners style that has made Kobach anathema to many independent and moderate GOP voters.
“He doesn’t wander away from the subject matter, especially on the alien stuff and all of those things — he’s held his ground,” said Bob Sines, from the small northeast Kansas town Hiawatha, the 73-year-old owner of a ham-processing plant.
Marshall, a two-term congressman for western and central Kansas, is backed by key business, agriculture and anti-abortion groups. And he often brags about voting with Trump 98% of the time in the House, in an attempt to bolster his conservative credentials.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has worried about whether Kobach can win, Trump's own advisers have pushed him to endorse Marshall, according to the campaign and White House officials who would not speak on the record because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
But the officials say Trump has resisted, largely out of fear that doing so would anger his most conservative supporters. In discussions about the endorsement, the president has told associates that he's mindful that Kobach's immigration views are in line with his own and that Kobach remains popular with Trump's base, the officials said.
Trump also was lobbied to remain neutral by Sen. Ted Cruz, who spoke with Trump about the race on Air Force One on Wednesday, as the men flew to Washington from Cruz's home state of Texas. Cruz noted Marshall backed John Kasich in 2016, one of Trump’s primary opponents, the officials said.
In Kansas, Kobach has played up his ties to the president even without an endorsement. He notes his role as an informal adviser after being the first prominent Kansas official to endorse Trump's 2016 bid for president.
Trump tweeted an endorsement for Kobach in 2018 the day before the primary in the governor's race, helping him win a 343-vote victory over then-Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer. The president overruled aides in doing it.
Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state, built a national profile by advocating for and then helping to write restrictive immigration policies, such as an Arizona “show your papers” law. That helped alienate many voters in the 2018 governor's election, and even some conservatives have soured on him.
Kobach is backed by billionaire investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who put $850,000 into an anti-Marshall political action committee, according to online campaign finance documents.
But that's only part of the roughly $11 million PACs have spent on often-slashing ads, according to two media tracking firms. Marshall, confident throughout the race, acknowledged this week that it has tightened.
Kansas does not hold runoffs, and nominees occasionally win with less than a third of the total vote.
“We knew this would be a challenge, but I trust Kansans are going to get this right,” Marshall said during an interview. “Kansans will realize that there's too much at stake.”
The biggest-spending PAC is Sunflower State, which has Democratic ties. Its ads have criticized Kobach for being too conservative but attacked Marshall more vigorously — fueling suspicions that it's deliberately boosting Kobach, many Democrats' preferred challenger for Bollier.
Kobach dismisses doubts about his electability by arguing that a surge of pro-Trump voters will carry him to victory after not showing up for the 2018 election. He contends he's being attacked by a McConnell-led GOP “swamp” that wants a pliable senator.
“On federal issues, Kansans are more conservative and more red than they are on state issues,” he said. “Whether it be national defense, or the Supreme Court or immigration or the federal budget.”
Also contributing was Jonathan Lemire in Washington.
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