As attendees arrived to hear Barbara Bollier speak at an outdoor event in Lenexa Friday, a campaign volunteer patrolled the crowd to ensure they were wearing masks and sitting safely six feet apart in a sign of the candidate’s caution about COVID-19.
Until Friday evening at Sar-Ko-Par Park, the Mission Hills Republican-turned-Democrat’s U.S. Senate campaign had been almost exclusively virtual. This time, she left home to attack her GOP opponent, Rep. Roger Marshall, at a “Lenexa Lawn Chair Chat,” her first major in-person event since winning the Democratic nomination.
“And when I look at my opponent who goes around without wearing a mask, shaking hands … that isn’t going to work,” she told a socially-distanced gathering of about 75. “We need to follow science. That’s why we need a doctor who actually follows science.”
Mark Woods, a registered Republican who described himself as voting independently, said he had considered Marshall, but is sold on Bollier.
“I like all of her positions on healthcare very much, and I like her stances on guns. I can’t say that there’s very much I disagree with her on,” said Woods, who asked Bollier a question about Medicare negotiating drug prices during the event.
While moderate Republican candidates suffered devastating losses in the August legislative primaries, moderate voters are still poised to play a pivotal role in November when Kansans choose a new U.S. senator.
Bollier, a state legislator who was a Republican until 2018, has focused her campaign on appealing to the centrist voters who have formed her political base during her 10 years in Topeka.
By contrast, Marshall has doubled down on his message to conservatives, escalating his support for President Donald Trump since winning a hotly-contested GOP primary by double digits.
State Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate GOP lawmaker from western Kansas who will retire in January, said Marshall has continued to speak in “primary rhetoric” at a time when he should pivot to the political center to shore up support among moderates.
He pointed to Marshall’s vote last month against $25 billion in relief funding for the U.S. Postal Service as a disappointment. The Democratic proposal passed with support from 26 Republicans, including two from Missouri. Every Kansas Republican in the U.S. House voted no.
“Moderate voters value elected officials who will display enough independence to do what they think is right rather than follow a strict doctrinal party line,” said Hineman, a Dighton Republican and majority leader of the Kansas House for two years.
Exactly what constitutes a moderate Kansas Republican can be nebulous and vary even from county to county. But this pool of voters often determines who wins statewide in general elections.
“That’s the voter bloc that is truly in play for members of both parties,” Hineman said.
Republicans make up roughly 45 % of the state’s registered voters as of September 1. Democrats and unaffiliated voters account for about 27 % apiece.
Both parties have grown their ranks since 2016, but Democrats have grown at a slightly faster rate. Their share of the Kansas electorate is up by roughly 2 percentage points since Trump’s election, a shift that has been particularly pronounced in the Kansas City area.
“The moderates that are still Republicans, they’re just ticked off,” said Stephanie Sharp, a former GOP state legislator and a political consultant for moderate candidates and counts Bollier as a long-time friend and client.
“Those moderates that are relatively to very engaged, I could see them voting Democrat straight ticket,” Sharp said.
A Democrat has not won a Senate race in the state since 1932.
Marshall said his message about restoring economic prosperity will appeal to voters across the political spectrum.
“Whether you’re a hardcore far right conservative, a moderate or a centrist voter, I think that message resonates,” Marshall said.
Conservative Republicans said it would be folly for Marshall to pivot after his commanding 14-point primary victory.
“He doesn’t need to campaign as someone he is not in a state that’s going to re-elect Donald Trump by double digits,” said Mark Dugan, who managed former Gov. Sam Brownback’s successful 2014 campaign. “National Democrats know this race ended August 4.”
Scott Paradise, a Republican strategist who has worked in both Kansas and Missouri, said Marshall ran with Trump in the primary “and there’s no reason to water down that conservative record. In fact, doing so might do more harm than good.”
However, Sharp said Marshall’s rhetoric downplaying the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to 190,000 deaths in the U.S., will turn off centrist voters, especially in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county.
“You can’t go around talking about COVID like it’s a hoax. He just sounds ridiculous to a lot of people,” said “He just needs to look this way a little bit,” Sharp said. “Realize that there are different parts of the state. You can’t say the same thing in Girard as Garden City.”
Marshall and other congressional Republicans are facing heightened scrutiny about their public statements on the virus after journalist Bob Woodward revealed the Trump told him in a February interview that COVID-19 was deadlier than a strenuous flu.
However, Trump told Woodward the following month he was “playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Facebook deleted a recent post from Marshall in which the congressman and OB-GYN promoted a conspiracy theory that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “quietly updated” its COVID data, suggesting that data on comorbidities, in many cases chronic health conditions, “reflects the difference between dying from COVID-19 and dying with COVID-19.”
Marshall’s comments were criticized by others in the medical community as misleading. Asked about the controversy, he said Kansans were smart enough to sort through the data and draw their own conclusions.
“It’s one little piece of the puzzle,” Marshall said, contending that the majority of Kansans under 65 can go to work without fearing the virus.
“The mental anguish, the fear-mongering is doing more damage than the virus itself… I respect the virus, but we cannot let it consume us,” Marshall said in an interview the week before Woodward’s revelations.
“I feel like the national media and the Democrat national party thinks that Kansans are dumb and that we can’t figure it out for ourselves,” Marshall said when asked why a political divide has developed on the response to the virus.
Bob Beatty, chair of political science at Washburn University, said Marshall’s messaging on the pandemic has given Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist, a key issue to draw a contrast with her fellow doctor.
“The issue she wants to talk about is coronavirus and at this point Marshall is making it easier for her to do that because he’s saying it’s not as big a deal as people think it is,” Beatty said.
Marshall said he expects Congress to pass an additional COVID-19 relief bill before the election. He said enacting liability protections for businesses operating during the pandemic is his priority, but he noted that he’s worried about the cost of additional relief measures.
“I don’t want to borrow any more money than we have to from our grandchildren. We don’t need to borrow 2 trillion dollars more,” Marshall said, adding later in the interview that the national debt keeps him awake at night.
Marshall has maintained an aggressive schedule of public in-person events despite the pandemic, while Bollier has largely favored digital campaigning as a way to maintain social distancing.
“I’ve got a job to do and my job is running for the United States Senate. I’m a frontline worker much like a doctor and nurse,” Marshall said. “Kansans want their leaders out front, not campaigning from home. They want to look me in the eye.”
Marshall said he has had seven COVID-19 tests to ensure he’s not spreading the virus.
State Rep. Jan Kessinger, a moderate Republican who lost his August primary, said images of Marshall without a mask on the campaign trail are “a big red flag” for moderate voters.
“He knows better, but he chooses because it’s an act of defiance,” said Kessinger, one of 75 GOP office holders to endorse Bollier.
“I think that Barbara has more in common with the traditional republicans, the moderate Republicans, than Roger Marshall. I’d say Barbara is more of a centrist and Roger’s all in with the extreme right,” he said.
Kessinger said these voters could elevate Bollier as they did two years ago when Democrat Laura Kelly was elected governor over a Republican who was seen as too far to the right, Kris Kobach. Marshall defeated Kobach in the Senate primary.
Bollier is attempting to reassemble the Kelly coalition. In an August interview, she called Marshall a “person who follows party lines almost all the time and hasn’t wavered from that position” and contrasted herself as someone who would be an “independent voice of reason.”
Duane Mathias, a Lenexa resident who supports Bollier, said he’s liberal on economic issues but socially conservative and opposes abortion. A former Republican a now a Democrat, he said the extreme wings of both parties, have blocked conversation “in the middle.”
“I think I saw an email ad or something, said ‘OK, here’s a somebody that’s converted from Republican to Democrat. I can identify with that,’” Mathias said.
Bollier’s campaign ads prominently feature former GOP legislators who were aligned with Bollier in Topeka.
“I have never voted for a Democrat for U.S. Senate in my lifetime, but I’m going to vote for Barbara Bollier. I know that Barbara will go to Washington and work across the aisles because that’s how she did things in Kansas,” former State Rep. Tom Moxley, a rancher from Council Grove, says while sporting a cowboy hat in an ad Bollier rolled out the day after the August primary.
GOP attacks Bollier’s moderate credentials
The state GOP has sought to drive a wedge between Bollier and moderate Republicans with an aggressive assault of campaign ads and newspaper columns that include misleading claims.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McMcConnell, aired an ad saying Bollier is “way out of touch” with Kansas and drawing attention to her voting record on abortion. Bollier has been an outspoken supporter of reproductive rights.
Marshall put up a TV ad that takes Bollier’s words brazenly out of context, and rearranging them to imagine how it wound “sound if Bollier’s ads actually matched her liberal record.”
Following a narrator who says Bollier pushed a gun ban in Kansas, viewers hear her say: “I’ll work to ban them nationwide.”
But the Bollier clip is from an August ad about curbing surprise medical bills – not guns.
“This ad is deceptive and actually manipulates video to put words — quite literally — into Barbara’s mouth,” said Alexandra De Luca, Bollier’s spokeswoman.
A Marshall op-ed that ran in several Kansas newspapers last month warned that Bollier was an “extreme liberal,” not a moderate. Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, followed on Wednesday with a similar column in The Star.
Denning’s evidence for Bollier’s lack of moderation includes two votes: one against a COVID-19 relief bill this spring and another opposing a state budget bill approved in 2019.
In fact, some of Bollier’s most conservative colleagues in the state Senate joined her in voting no. Still, Marshall’s campaign circulated the op-ed as “exposing the truth about Barbara Bollier’s record.”
Bollier on Friday said her 2018 endorsement of Democrat Laura Kelly for governor had made a few Republicans mad. “You might have heard some of their madness come out recently in the newspaper.”
An analysis of Bollier’s voting record by professors at Princeton University and the University of Houston shows that Bollier – far from liberal – was among the the state’s most moderate Republican lawmakers before leaving the party.
The Measuring American Legislatures project scored thousands of state legislators on the basis of partisanship. On its scale, a negative score indicates liberal ideology while a positive score is conservative.
Bollier scored -0.205, leaning ever so slightly left of center. That puts her slightly to the right of state Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican who lost his primary, and earned a score of -0.274.
For contrast, Denning was at 0.787, while Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, scored -0.864, which puts Bollier in between the leadership of both parties.
The project only measures lawmakers through 2018, so it doesn’t capture any change in voting behavior since Bollier became a Democrat.
Hineman, who has stayed neutral in the race, said that when Bollier “a member of the Republican Party she would be viewed as somewhat left-leaning but still fairly much centrist in terms of the entire political spectrum. I believe that’s still who she is.”