Kris Kobach eking out a narrow primary victory against divided opponents. A Democratic woman stressing moderate themes, health care and good government, defeating Kobach in the general election.
It happened in 2018, and it could happen again.
In 2018, firebrand Kobach defeated incumbent Jeff Colyer to capture the Republican nomination for governor. The margin was 343 votes. The presence of “spoiler” candidates Jim Barnett, Ken Seltzer, Patrick Kucera, and — seriously — two high school students almost certainly accounts for Kobach’s margin.
Outspoken and controversial, Kobach went on to lose to Democrat Laura Kelly. Kelly may have also benefited from a national turnout boost by college-educated women opposed to President Trump, also an important factor in the upset win of Congresswoman Sharice Davids in the 3rd district.
Will it be back to the future this year?
Kobach is now running hard for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pat Roberts. Kobach’s strong base overlaps heavily with President Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. Anyone-but-Kobach Republicans need to consolidate most of their support behind a single alternative to have any realistic chance of stopping Kobach. He is a controversy magnet, whose impulsive, divisive behavior could make the race competitive for presumptive Democratic nominee state Sen. Barbara Bollier.
Even so, the never-Kobach Republicans remain in serious disarray.
First, rumors swirled that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would resign to seek the seat. Once Pompeo clarified that he wasn’t running, Kansas icon Bob Dole sent an important signal to voters and donors by endorsing “Big First” District Congressman Roger Marshall.
Yet a lane has not been cleared for Marshall. His biggest challenge is state Senate President Susan Wagle, who has less chance of capturing the nomination and whose presence on the ballot will cost Marshall votes. Wagle’s ambitions for the seat may explain her insistence on stopping nearly all business in the Kansas Legislature, until an anti-abortion constitutional amendment is placed on the August ballot.
Democrats are ready. Bollier is a retired doctor and experienced state senator from Mission Hills. She switched parties and endorsed Kelly for governor in 2018, in large part due to their shared support for Medicaid expansion.
Bollier has already raised over $1 million for her campaign. In order to pull off the win, Bollier needs for a few things to happen. First, Kobach may be the only Republican nominee she can beat — this remains a heavily Republican state.
Second, Republican and independent voters would have to be open to choosing a Democrat for another office besides governor. Kansas has had about the same number of Democratic as Republican governors in the past half-century, yet the state has not elected a Democrat U.S. senator since 1932 — America’s longest one-party streak.
Kelly won only nine of the state’s 105 counties, but they were the ones she needed to win — the ones with the largest populations. Today’s newly registered voters largely come from the state’s five most-populous counties. While these counties account for only 54% of the state’s voters overall, they represent nearly 63% of those who registered in 2018.
Kansas’ population shift from rural, toward urban and suburban may be just the ticket for Bollier, particularly if Kobach ekes out a nomination from a divided Republican primary.
Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.