Heartland Dispatch: With Sanders Out, Kansans’ Primary Attention Turns to House, Senate, and State Races

Senator Bernie Sanders withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination this week, making former Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive party nominee to face President Trump this fall. Are the primaries over, then?

Not even close. Here in Kansas, things are just starting to heat up.

First, what could have been: Kansas Democrats are undoubtedly disappointed that they cannot try out their unique new primary this year. They replaced the creaky in-person caucus system with ranked choice voting, or RCV. Celebrated by many political scientists, RCV allows for voters to rank their choices instead of simply choosing one candidate. If your first-choice candidate does not get enough votes for any delegates, your vote is simply re-cast for your second choice, and so on until your vote goes to a candidate that can win at least one delegate with the help of your vote. RCV is particularly handy for supporters of dark horse candidates, who can cast “backup” votes by ranking more-electable candidates as their second choices. This should work well in Democratic presidential primaries, because Democrats have used proportional representation, or PR to choose convention delegates for several decades. The combination of RCV and PR works nicely since PR divides up a state’s delegates according to a formula, rather than simply awarding them all to the first-place winner, as the Republicans do. Kansas Dems also provided for voting by mail this year, which would have been perfect during the current pandemic. The only question is if American voters would be confused by the change in ballot design. Kansans will have to wait until next time to learn the answer.

Kansas Republicans took a markedly different tack, joining several other state GOP organizations by simply canceling their primary this year due to the inevitability of Trump’s victory.

This division predates the current pandemic, but it nicely mirrors partisan divisions on voting in the age of coronavirus. Democrats are pushing hard for voting by mail at the national level, while Republicans seem determined to simply hold elections as usual, even if it means low turnout.

That said, things are just getting good here in Kansas. The state’s General Primary is scheduled for August 4, and there are several closely-contested races to watch. First comes the Republican primary for the US Senate seat being vacated by Senator Pat Roberts. Republicans vying to replace him include Congressman Roger Marshall of the rural “Big first” district in the central and western part of the state, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. A divisive figure and a close ally of President Trump, Kobach is particularly focused on immigration issues. Kobach has championed the idea that undocumented immigrants vote in US elections, requiring tough new voting restrictions such as proof of citizenship laws. Kansas had such a law, which Kobach defended personally when challenged by two federal court cases, which were decided together in 2018. Kobach lost the cases, and the law was permanently stayed. (Disclosure: I served as an expert witness for the plaintiff in one of these cases). In 2018, Kobach won the GOP gubernatorial primary by just a few hundred votes. In the fall, he was defeated by Democrat Laura Kelly in a three-way race.

For her part, Kelly won only nine of Kansas’ 105 counties, but they were the ones with the largest populations. Today, Kansas looks less and less like the rural communities made famous by the Wizard of Oz. Most Kansans today live in the Kansas City-Lawrence, Wichita, or Topeka metropolitan areas. Nearly two-thirds of the voters who have registered since 2014 live in just the state’s five largest counties, which in turn lie in those metros. Rural Kansas is losing ground not only economically, but politically as well.

Kansas has not been represented by a Democrat in the US Senate since the 1930s—the longest one-party streak in America.

Will these changes help state senator Barbara Bollier, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the open US Senate seat? Bollier is a retired doctor from Mission Hills, a wealthy suburb of Kansas City. A generation ago, the idea of Mission Hills electing a Democrat would be laughable, but Bollier switched from being a moderate Republican to a Democrat a few years ago after getting frustrated with her old party for blocking Medicaid expansion. With Democrats now well-entrenched as the party of the professional class, the idea of a Democrat representing a wealthy suburban community in Kansas is no longer absurd.

Kansas has not been represented by a Democrat in the US Senate since the 1930s—the longest one-party streak in America. Yet if the controversial Kobach is the Republican nominee, Bollier may have a shot, particularly if she can gain and hold together the coalition that elected Kelly as governor. However, this is not a given, as Americans (and Kansans) are more likely to cross party lines to elect governors than other offices. Then again, Kobach did not build much of a campaign organization when he ran for governor in 2018, relying instead on national media appearances (particularly on FOX News and other conservative outlets) and name recognition. Bollier still has an uphill battle, but she is not to be dismissed. Republicans alarmed about her chances are pushing hard for Marshall, a more-mainstream, less outrageous conservative than Kobach. Marshall earned the endorsement of Kansas political icon Bob Dole, which should help him raise money and win older voters who remember Dole fondly. Wagle’s presence in the primary seems to muddle things, and may help Kobach by costing Marshall votes.

Other primaries to watch include the Second and Third Congressional Districts. The Second contains Topeka, college-town Lawrence, and a big swath of rural, eastern Kansas. If Kansas loses a Congressional seat in 2022 due to the Census, the Second is the most likely to disappear, its pieces incorporated into other districts. As it stands, it is represented by Steve Watkins, a former Navy SEAL and defense contractor employee. Watkins won the office in 2018 with a Trump-like message, despite having no prior political experience and a campaign funded almost entirely by his own father. More recently, Watkins ran into controversy when a reporter discovered that his only local address in the district is a P.O. Box at the UPS Store. The more-mainstream state Treasurer Jake LaTurner is challenging Watkins for the nomination. The winner there will probably face Topeka Mayor Michelle de la Isla. Topeka’s first Latina mayor has earned praise for pushing an often-dysfunctional city government forward. De la Isla will do well in Lawrence and Topeka, but the rest of the district has a rural character. Trump won the district easily in 2016, and that will make the race difficult for de la Isla. She would probably have an easier time against Watkins than against LaTurner.

The Third District includes the Kansas portion of the Kansas City metropolitan area. It is centered on Johnson County, the state’s wealthiest and most populous. It also includes Kansas City, Kansas, a diverse, working-class satellite city of the larger Kansas City, MO. In 2018, the district’s incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder was defeated by former Obama White House staffer and retired MMA fighter Sharice Davids, who first had to win a tough primary against a Bernie Sanders ally. Davids’ win was part of a national wave, with Democratic candidates—particularly women—winning many suburban districts and doing particularly well with college-educated women. The Third voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, signaling a competitive race two years later. The strongest candidates in the Republican primary to challenge Davids are both well-connected, professional women who have not served before in public office. For her part, Davids has kept her focus on local issues and local appearances. She opposes single-payer healthcare, arguing that it is not in the best interest of her constituents. Finally, Davids has developed a good working relationship with neighboring Kansas City, MO Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver II. When the older Cleaver first offered to help show her the ropes, she apparently found his tone condescending. Davids replied that she could show him how to break someone’s arm. According to reporters, the two have had a good working relationship ever since.

Other races to watch include the Republican primary to succeed Marshall in the heavily rural “Big First” district. All the leading Republicans identify as conservative, and this is one of America’s “reddest” districts. However, the tone and background of the winner still matters. Marshall won the seat by defeating outspoken Tea Party Congressman Tim Huelskamp in the 2016 Republican Primary. Huelskamp was so combative, he was kicked off the House Agriculture Committee by the leadership of his own party. This is a no-no in the Big First, and support from the Farm Bureau helped Marshall defeat Huelskamp and re-claim that prized Ag Committee seat. The next congressperson from the Big First will be expected to hold onto that committee seat as well.

With all State House of Representatives seats on the ballot as well, the Republican primary this year will be an important first test of how voters respond to all of this and to the pandemic response as well.

The primaries will also determine the balance of power in the Kansas Legislature. Fifteen years ago, I called Kansas a “three party state” due to its makeup of moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and Democrats. Since the 1980s, Kansas Republicans have often been so divided that Democrats have been able to wield a bit of power in the reddest-of-red states by being the tiebreakers among the feuding Republicans. The election of former Governor Sam Brownback in 2010 seemed to change all that, as he pushed forward with an aggressive tax cut plan. Meanwhile, Brownback’s political consultants spearheaded a campaign to defeat moderate leaders in the Kansas Senate and replace them with supportive conservatives. In the Brownback era, it was beginning to look like the moderate Kansas Republican was an endangered species, but they came roaring back in the 2016 primaries. That year, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans defeated Brownback supporters to win the majority (as a coalition) in both houses of the Legislature, reversing the tax cuts and restoring the school base funding formula that had been eliminated by their predecessors.

Unlike most states, Kansas elects its entire state senate all at once, in presidential election years. The terms are not staggered as in the US Senate. With all State House of Representatives seats on the ballot as well, the Republican primary this year will be an important first test of how voters respond to all of this and to the pandemic response as well. Gov. Kelly made Kansas one of the first states to close schools for the rest of the year, and has also issued a statewide stay at home directive. Unhappy legislators have now put a legislative veto on her powers.

In sum, Kansas political watchers need not be too sad over the early end of the Democratic Presidential primaries. There is still plenty to hold our attention. This August promises extremely exciting races for Congress and the statehouse, in state with a rapidly changing electorate.


Michael Smith is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Dr. Michael Smith is a Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  His research interests include voting laws, Kansas politics, and teaching methods.  His teaching interests include American politics, political theory and philosophy, campaigns and elections, and state and local government.  His most recent, co-authored book is Low Taxes and Small Government: Sam Brownback’s Great Experiment in Kansas (Lexington 2019).

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