Kansas, of all places, is shaping up to be an important 2020 battleground

Kansas has a slate of important primary elections on Tuesday, setting up what could be one of the most competitive general election seasons in recent memory. From the presidential contest and an all-important Senate race to several House elections, the state is shaping up to be one of the more unlikely 2020 battlegrounds.

Why? Because Kansas, where the electorate tends to skew moderate, seems to be souring on Donald Trump.

The New York Times reported private polling has shown a close race between Trump and Joe Biden in the state. Trump won Kansas by more than 20 points in 2016, but a few months before the 2020 election, voters are pretty evenly split on the president’s job performance, according to Morning Consult. His approval rating has dropped by 20 points since he took office. In 2018, Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race to put her party back in power for the first time in a decade.

This is a state where more than half of voters identify as moderate or liberal. And its population has been growing more suburban and urban, despite its prairie reputation.

“We have a big chunk of stereotypical suburban voters that are transitioning to be more Democratic now,” Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told me. “They’re not as comfortable today with the politics of the Republican Party, and a lot of them voted for Laura Kelly. Those voters carry a lot of heft.”

In all likelihood, the presidential election isn’t going to be won or lost here. If Joe Biden prevails in Kansas, he’s probably on his way to a landslide. But the battle for control of the US Senate could be decided in this state. And the general election campaign could look quite different depending on which Republican triumphs in Tuesday’s primary.

Kansas’s US Senate Republican primary

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, US Rep. Roger Marshall, and businessman Bob Hamilton are the leading contenders for the Republican Senate nomination, vying for the opportunity to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts.

Sen. Pat Roberts on May 7.
Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

Kobach is a well-known commodity and has been an immigration hawk for years. As Miller puts it, he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He served two terms as secretary of state before running for governor in 2018. But Kobach’s inflammatory rhetoric and hardline views have sometimes put him at odds with the more moderate Kansas electorate, and he lost the governor’s race. He hasn’t been able to raise much money for the 2020 Senate race, though as Recode’s Teddy Schleifer reported, libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel pumped almost $1 million into the campaign to support Kobach. But he does enjoy support among Kansas’s more conservative voters, which has kept him at the front of the primary field.

Marshall won his US House seat in 2018 before quickly being courted by the Republican establishment to run for Senate after the national party’s preferred choice, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declined to enter the race. He is a party-line Republican; at times, he’s sounded open to reforms like a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but he has also vocally supported Trump’s agenda. There is no getting to Kobach’s right on that particular issue, however, and so the primary campaign has assumed a familiar mainstream-versus-conservative tenor.

“He’s the kind of Republican that, if Republican leadership has negotiated a compromise spending bill with Democrats, Marshall is going to vote for it because leadership is going to vote for it,” Miller said of Marshall. “He’s not going to vote no on principle.”

Kansas, of all places, is shaping up to be an important 2020 battleground

Rep. Roger Marshall speaks to reporters on October 23, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

According to the New York Times, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senior Republicans have begged Trump to endorse Marshall over Kobach, fearing the latter would be more vulnerable in a general election after his 2018 loss. But Trump has so far not waded into the race and likely views Kobach as an ideological ally.

Hamilton, who started his own plumbing business in the 1980s, is the wild card. He’s put more than $3 million of his own money into the campaign, portraying himself as the archconservative outsider. Polling on the race has been sparse, with the last survey from June showing Kobach with a 9-point lead (35-26) over Marshall and Hamilton sitting in third with 15 percent.

At this point, the Kansas Senate race is likely to be somewhat competitive, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, no matter who the Republican candidate is. Barbara Bollier, a state senator expected to easily prevail in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, has raised more than $7 million so far, much more than any of her potential GOP opponents.

“I think that’s really shocked people, to put that lightly,” Miller said. “I think she’s proving herself to be a better candidate than a lot of people wanted to give her credit for.”

But national forecasters expect the race to be tighter if Kobach, who has already lost a statewide election in the Trump era, wins the Republican nomination. Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently rates the Kansas Senate race Likely Republican, but that would change if Kobach emerges with the nomination.

“I do think a Kobach nomination endangers the Senate seat, and makes the overall GOP path to retaining a Senate majority harder,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor at the Crystal Ball, told me. “We will make the rating of Kansas more competitive if Kobach wins.”

Kansas First Congressional District Republican primary

Marshall is vacating his seat in Kansas’s First Congressional District so that he can run for Senate. The district, which covers most of western Kansas, has a strong Republican bent; the Cook Political Report rates it R+24, meaning it’s 24 points more Republican than the US overall. That means the winner of the GOP primary on Tuesday is all but assured to wind up in Congress next year. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the district Safe Republican.

Tracey Mann, a former lieutenant governor, is considered the frontrunner, though Bill Clifford, a doctor and businessman, has spent more than $500,000 of his own money to try to make the primary competitive.

“I think people would be surprised if Mann didn’t win,” Miller told me.

The expected Democratic nominee after Tuesday’s primary, Kali Barnett, is “a good candidate in the wrong district” for the general election, Miller said. “If she gets 30 percent, that’s an accomplishment.”

Kansas Second Congressional District primaries

Oddly enough, it is the Republican incumbent in the Second District, which covers most of eastern Kansas besides the immediate Kansas City region, who is facing the most notable primary challenge.

Rep. Steve Watkins is currently facing felony charges for alleged voter fraud. Prosecutors have said he used an inaccurate address to vote in a 2019 municipal election, leading him to vote in the wrong city council election. Watkins has said the address mix-up was a simple mistake and called the charges “hyper political” and suspicious, according to the Kansas City Star, insinuating the prosecutor is trying to help his Republican primary opponent, Jake LaTurner.

Kansas, of all places, is shaping up to be an important 2020 battleground

Rep. Steve Watkins in the Capitol on on Feb. 11.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

LaTurner, 32, is the Kansas state Treasurer. He’s also received the endorsement of the Kansas Farmer Bureau, one of the most important interest groups in the state. LaTurner has criticized Watkins over the voting scandal, saying he is putting a winnable seat at risk. There has been no public polling heading into Tuesday’s election.

Whoever comes out of the GOP primary is expected to face Democrat Michelle De La Isla, mayor of Topeka. She has raised a healthy amount of money in the primary (more than $700,000) and could use her compelling life story — she had been homeless for a time in her native Puerto Rico before moving to Kansas, getting a college degree, and entering political life — to make the general election campaign a close one. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race Likely Republican, but some other forecasters like the Cook Political Report place it in a more competitive category.

“Her primary is just a formality,” Miller said of De La Isla. “Democrats are, I think, very interested in this district.”

Kansas Third Congressional District Republican primary

Rep. Sharice Davids is the Democratic incumbent. She took the seat in 2018, part of the wave that won her party control of the House.

“It’s your poster child for high-education, high-income suburbia, zipping off Democratic at warp speed,” Miller told me. “It’s hard to see Republicans seriously contesting a district like this.”

It’s still teetering on the edge of being competitive: Cook rates the district R+4 and Lean Democratic, though Sabato’s Crystal Ball is more confident in Davids’s chances, putting the race in the Likely Democratic column.

Kansas, of all places, is shaping up to be an important 2020 battleground

Rep. Sharice Davids speaks at the event in the Capitol on March 10.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

The Republican primary field, to determine who will challenge Davids, is cluttered. Three candidates — businesswoman Amanda Adkins, ex-nonprofit CEO Sara Hart Weir, and former mayor Adrienne Vallejo Foster — have raised at least six figures and have legitimate political credentials; Adkins notably served as an adviser to then-Gov. Sam Brownback.

The candidates in the Third District, Miller told me, are “falling over themselves to be as pro-Trump as possible.”

“That’s where they’ve come into conflict with each other,” he said. “Who’s the Trumpiest here?”

Given the changing political nature of the district, that could end up being a problem in the November race against Davids. But first, one of them must make it out of Tuesday’s primary.

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