By Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Republicans on Tuesday nominated Rep. Roger Marshall for the Senate instead of polarizing conservative Kris Kobach, heeding the party establishment’s advice for keeping a normally safe seat out of play in what could be a difficult year for the GOP.
In a House race, freshman Kansas Rep. Steve Watkins lost his Republican primary after being charged with felony election fraud and other crimes.
Marshall prevailed in a crowded GOP primary field with the backing of major farm, business and anti-abortion groups but without an endorsement from President Donald Trump sought by Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and others for the two-term congressman for western and central Kansas. Marshall overcame Kobach’s reputation as both an informal adviser to Trump and reputation as a conservative firebrand.
Many Republicans’ fears about Kobach fueled ad campaigns that cost at least $15 million, with most of the spending by political action committees. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, is nationally known for advocating restrictive immigration policies and alienated independent and moderate GOP voters in losing the Kansas governor’s race in 2018.
The race for retiring four-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat had national implications even though the GOP hasn’t lost a Senate contest in Kansas since 1932. Republicans are trying to keep their 53-47 Senate majority with competitive races in other states, including Arizona, Colorado and Maine.
Even with Marshall as the nominee, the GOP faces a potentially competitive Senate race. The Democratic nominee, state Sen. Barbara Bollier has raised more than $8 million for her campaign, a big sum in a low-cost media state like Kansas, with donations flooding in from outside the state. Bollier is a retired Kansas City-area anethesiologist and former moderate Republican who garnered national headlines by switching parties at the end of 2018.
Marshall raised about $2.9 million and Kobach, a little more than $1 million. Bob Hamilton, the founder of a Kansas City-area plumbing company largely self-funded a campaign heavy on television ads with $3.5 million in personal loans. Those figures were all dwarfed by PAC spending in the primary, which totaled more than $9 million.
Marshall, Kobach and Hamilton sat atop an 11-person field, the largest one for the GOP since the state began holding Senate primaries more than 100 years ago. Kansas has no runoff elections, so if the anti-Kobach vote had splintered enough, he might have won with only his solid base on the right.
Marshall and his allies made Kobach’s loss in the governor’s race a key issue and argued that he was the best alternative. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s first choice was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Wichita-area congressman, but while Pompeo made multiple visits to Kansas suggesting interest, he definitely declared himself out in January.
Kobach argued that the issues he’s often emphasized — particularly immigration — would play better in a fall Senate campaign and said he’d benefit from a flood of pro-Trump voters going to the polls in November after skipping voting in the 2018 mid-terms.
Roberts declared his support for Marshall after the congressman had picked up endorsements from the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the National Right to Life Committee and Kansans for Life, the state’s most influential anti-abortion group. Marshall also had the backing of 97-year-old political icon Bob Dole, the former U.S. Senate majority leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee.
In the Republican House primary, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner defeated Watkins after arguing that the criminal charges against Watkins made an already vulnerable incumbent an even worse bet with Democrats sensing an opportunity to pick up the 2nd District seat in eastern Kansas despite its Republican leanings. Watkins had largely toed the conservative line and vocally supported President Donald Trump in Congress.
The charges against Watkins were filed in state district court his home of Shawnee County just three weeks before the election and arose from his listing a postal box at a UPS Inc. store as his residence on a state voter registration form.
Watkins and LaTurner battled for the GOP nomination with Dennis Taylor, a Topeka lawyer and businessman with a long career in state and local government that has included heading several state agencies. Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla won the Democratic nomination easily over James Windholz, a University of Kansas graduate student and instructor.