Even in today’s polarized political environment, candidates matter. Doug Jones, for example, is not a senator if the GOP does not nominate Roy Moore in the 2017 special election. Even candidates who do not have nearly the same problems as Moore can cause headaches for their parties, turning easy wins into political dogfights. Given this, it is not surprising that pundits and Democratic Party activists have turned their attention to a state that has been off their radar for decades – Kansas. With incumbent Pat Roberts retiring, the state faces an election for an open Senate seat in 2020. Polls of the GOP primary have shown ex-Secretary of State and controversial figure Kris Kobach in the lead. Democrats feel confident that Kobach facing the Democratic front runner, State Senator Barbara Bollier, would lead to a competitive race, but unfortunately for Democrats this is likely not the reality. Kobach is weaker than other Republicans, but there is no reason to believe that he is weak enough to lose a seat the GOP has held since 1932.
Why Kobach is Considered Weak
Before going forward, it is worthwhile to state the obvious: Kris Kobach is a weak candidate and his electoral history shows it. In 2018, he lost the Governor’s mansion to Laura Kelly by a little over 5%, performing 14% worse than any other Republican on the ballot and 14% worse than the GOP’s U.S. House candidates in the state. Additionally, his time as Secretary of State was marred by controversy. He was seen as putting political showmanship over the duties of the office, aggressively pushing the idea of voter fraud being prevalent even when his own study showed it to be vanishingly rare.
Additionally, there were complaints that Kobach essentially disregarded the idea of running a robust campaign, instead favoring Fox News appearances in the hope that partisanship would carry him over the finish line. That lack of political work ethic alone would be enough to make Republicans nervous, not even mentioning the fact that Kobach emerged from the race receiving only 43% of the vote, an absolutely abysmal showing for a Republican in Kansas. But despite all of this, there are three reasons why Kobach would not seriously endanger the seat if he were the nominee. Partisanship, turnout dynamics, and third party voters.
While voters have become more uniform in their party preference up and down the ballot over the past decade or so, the trend has not been evenly distributed. Federal races have seen far more alignment with presidential results than state or local races. Even in 2018, gubernatorial races were significantly less partisan than their House or Senate counterparts. Laura Kelly deserves enormous credit for her win, but there is no denying that it is unlikely she would have overperformed Hillary Clinton by 25% if she was running in a federal race instead of a gubernatorial one. Additionally, Kobach was dragged down by the unpopularity of the Brownback administration. According to Morning Consult, Sam Brownback left office with a net -40% approval rating. Morning Consult also tracks Donald Trump’s approval by state, and they have the president at net +7% approval in Kansas, nearly 50 points better than Brownback. For all of Kobach’s perceived flaws, there is no denying that Brownback was a weight around the neck of his campaign which would not be there in 2020.
Not only is Bollier unlikely to get the crossover support that Kelly got, a hypothetical Kobach Senate bid can afford to lose a large number of Trump voters and still win. Because of Kelly’s win, pundits sometimes forget just how red Kansas is at a federal level. Trump won the state by 20% in 2016, and despite its high level of college education, and increasing urbanization, it still has a long way to go before it is competitive. According to calculations by twitter user Aaron Moriak (@MaronAoriak), if Kobach 2020 did as poorly as he did in 2018 in Kansas’ metro areas, all he would need to do is match Trump’s margins in non-metro areas to cross 50%. Given how closely senate and presidential results have aligned in the last few years, that is not an extremely tall order even for a flawed candidate.
While the 2018 midterms did have incredibly high turnout for a non-presidential election, it was not evenly distributed across the country. In Kansas, this effect was particularly acute. Below is a map showing how votes cast in 2018 compared to 2018. Clearly, there was far more of a drop off in votes in rural, Trump friendly counties than there was in suburban counties where Democrats may improve in 2018. This means that even if Bollier comes close to matching Kelly’s margins, she may fall short simply due to Trump voters coming out to vote when they did not in 2018.
Third Party Voters
One aspect of the 2018 race that is often forgotten is the candidacy of Greg Orman. Orman, a businessman, was the de facto Democratic senate nominee in 2014 when he ran against Pat Roberts. Given this history it would be easy to assume that he took votes primarily from Kelly, but this is not the case. He was strongest in rural western Kansas, largely because he chose GOP State Senator John Doll, from the area, as his running mate. Votes for Orman appear to have been much more motivated by geography than ideology. Below is a map that shows where Orman was strongest. As can be seen, he got his highest levels of support in Southwest Kansas, a heavily Republican area. This goes against the conventional wisdom that Orman won suburban moderates who disliked Kobach and were naturally more predisposed to Kelly. Given this, it is possible that a Kobach Senate run would have substantial room to grow from 2018 just because of the lack of a credible third-party challenger.
Kris Kobach is a weak candidate, there is no doubt about this. His 2018 performance was abysmal and his political instincts are subpar, and national Republicans know it. He is so weak, the party has pushed the president to endorse his most prominent primary challenger, Representative Roger Marshall. Overall hower, there is little reason to believe that Kobach would put Kansas’ senate seat truly in play for Democrats, even against Barbara Bollier. The partisanship of modern Senate races means that Bollier would have a very difficult time replicating the Kelly coalition. Additionally, Kansas’ deep red lean at the presidential level, and the president’s positive approvals, means that Kobach would have a high chance of being dragged across the finish line by partisanship even if his campaign is lackluster. Even if Bollier could perform similarly to Kelly in terms of margins, a win would be far from assured given the large number of Trump 2016 voters who did not show up in 2020 and will presumably be more likely to vote in 2020. Lastly, it is often forgotten that Greg Orman took a significant number of votes in the 2018 race. While these voters obviously were not lockstep with Kobach, he did draw most of his support from Republican areas of the state, casting doubt on the idea that Bollier would win even most of these voters. While the demographic trends in Kansas are better long term for Democrats than most would expect, the reality is that 2020 is likely a cycle or two too early for the party to seriously think about flipping a Senate seat.