As the United States grinds towards the November general election, it is becoming increasingly clear to political experts that Republican chances of holding on to the White House, or winning the House of Representatives, are rapidly vanishing.
Nationwide, Donald Trump is ten points behind Joe Biden and Biden maintains a comfortable lead in all the key swing states.
Meanwhile, estimates of the generic House ballot show that Democrats have been ahead of the Republicans by around nine points for months.
The only question remaining for many Republican leaders – particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – is whether the party will be able to hold onto their majority in the U.S. Senate. If the Democrats flip the Senate in November, they would control all three branches of government for the first time in a decade – and it could spell the end of the Republican Party as we know it.
As things stand, the Democrats need to win four seats to flip the Senate (or three seats, with Biden’s Vice President acting as a tie-breaker).
Both parties are pouring vast sums of cash into these races, but the Republicans are facing a drain on their coffers from an unexpected source – the deep, deep red state of Kansas. Kansas is a citadel of Republicanism and has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Sunflower State easily, beating Hillary Clinton by twenty points.
However, the Republican Party’s grip on Kansas’ Senate seat has been thrown into doubt by the retirement of Senator Pat Roberts and the candidacy of a controversial figure: Kris Kobach. Kobach has spent his career whipping up controversy both inside and outside his state for his extremely xenophobic views and his willingness to use his power to enact that ideology.
In the early 2000s, Kobach travelled the country helping local authorities to set up unconstitutional programs to target immigrants. In 2010, he became Kansas’ Secretary of State and spent eight years in office dreaming up ways to attack minority communities. During the time he was responsible for running state elections, voter turnout dropped by over 100,000.
Kobach has gleefully described himself as “the ACLU’s worst nightmare” – inadvertently (or perhaps not) comparing himself to organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party that the ACLU has famously confronted.
After two terms as Secretary of State, 2018 seemed set to be the biggest year of Kobach’s life. He was chosen by Trump to co-chair a national investigation into so-called “voter fraud” and ran for governor with the President’s endorsement.
But it all went wrong. His commission was unable to present any evidence of voter fraud, and was disbanded. While he whittled away his gubernatorial run chasing after phantom illegal voters (and disenfranchising a lot of legitimate voters along the way) his Democratic opponent, Laura Kelly, ripped into the incumbent Republican administration of which Kobach was part for disastrous trickle-down economic policies that had ruined the state’s finances.
In November, Laura Kelly won by a comfortable margin, humiliating both Kobach and his party in a state that should have been an easy win for them.
Many in the Republican leadership learned the lesson and swore never to run such an incompetent, divisive candidate ever again.
Kobach had other ideas. His entry into the race for the U.S. Senate has thrown the Republican primary into turmoil. The party’s establishment has put their thumb on the scale in favor of State Senator Roger Marshall, a reliable fundraiser who is deeply conservative and loyal to Trump.
Kobach has sought to portray Marshall as a tool of insidious Washington D.C. interests. Marshall hasn’t been helped by the fact that he is definitely the establishment’s second choice; Mitch McConnell spent almost a year unsuccessfully trying to persuade U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to enter the race before backing Marshall’s candidacy.
In normal circumstances, the backing of the Republican establishment would be enough to put Kobach back in his box – the former Secretary of State now has a record as a loser in a state where Republicans almost never lose, and is not the best at fundraising – but a variety of factors have complicated the situation.
Kobach has received large donations from groups with Democratic links, who are trying to set Kobach up to be a more beatable general election candidate.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Silicon Valley billionaire (and purveyor of dystopian surveillance systems) Peter Thiel has thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars at Kobach’s campaign, inspired their shared views on immigration (Thiel, himself a German immigrant, is a “pull-up-the-ladder-after-you’ve-climbed-it” kind of guy) and a mutual friendship with the genuinely evil Ann Coulter. There are also a number of other candidates in the mix, including a self-funding millionaire and a former Kansas City Chiefs football player.
All this confusion – made worse by a lack of reliable polling – means that the national Republican Party and the groups affiliated with it are being forced to pour resources into a state that should be safe for them.
Unlike the candidates in the messy Republican primary, Democrat Barbara Bollier has an easy ride. The State Senator is the only Democratic candidate running for the seat, allowing her to hoard campaign donations for the general election while her Republican rivals blow their funds attacking each other.
As a result, she is currently beating the Republicans in fundraising.
Bollier is not a candidate who will excite progressives. In 2010, she was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Republican, and stayed with the Republicans until 2018, when she dramatically announced she would cross the aisle to the Democrats. Her stated reasons for leaving her party were Trump’s lack of leadership and the Kansas Republicans’ opposition to LGBT+ rights.
The timing of her switch – just a month after the midterms, where Democrats swept through suburban districts like hers – offers a more plausible reason for Bollier’s decision: she saw which way the political winds were blowing.
Bollier’s assertion as she changed parties that the Republican was “hell bent on removing moderates” suggests that her ideology remains pretty much unchanged, and that all that’s changed is the letter next to her name. Reinforcing that idea is the fact that she has promised to avoid voting along party lines – meaning that even if she wins, the Democrats can hardly rely on her during close votes.
Bollier faces steep odds in this election, regardless of how the Republican primary turns out. In a year when Donald Trump tops the ballot and is running ahead of Joe Biden by double digits (according to research by Public Policy Polling, NPI’s pollster), electing a Democratic candidate to the Senate will be difficult.
Nevertheless, progressives can take pleasure in the unusual situation unfolding in the Sunflower State. The more Republicans are forced to invest in a state they ought to be dominating, the less resources they have to throw against better Democratic candidates in more uncertain races.