In one of Ronald Reagan’s presidential runs he had a TV ad that ended with the phrase, “The choice is clear.” For Kansas Republican voters pondering whom to vote for in the Aug. 4 U.S. Senate primary, the opposite is true.
With a second debate held on May 23, the June 1 filing deadline now past, and Senate President Susan Wagle dropping out, four viable candidates have emerged: U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, 1st District congressman; businessman and former Kansas City Chief Dave Lindstrom; former Kansas Secretary of State and Trump confidante Kris Kobach; and successful plumber Bob Hamilton. Kobach and Marshall are the front-runners, but Lindstrom and Hamilton hover as not only options, but X-factors who could decide which front-runner wins.
Kobach remains a popular choice for many Republican primary voters. He is a controversial figure who is not afraid to bash Democrats (or Republicans who he thinks are weak-kneed, for that matter) and wears his conservative bad-boy reputation in the national press as a badge of honor and proof that he is an outsider fighting the establishment. He is close to Donald Trump and was considered for jobs in his administration.
In the May 23 debate, Kobach noted that the “Bob Dole days” of amity in the Senate are gone. “You need a fighter. Yes, I’ll be attacked by the media, but I don’t care.” Some GOP voters are hesitant, though, because Kobach lost the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. Marshall said at the debate, “We cannot afford to send a failed candidate who will lose to (Democrat) Barbara Bollier.”
So what about Marshall as the alternative, then? Marshall has pro-Trump credentials – he’s voted with Trump in Congress at a 98% rate – and as a physician he brings added cachet during a pandemic. Well, if Marshall argues that Kobach is too controversial and hence unelectable, Kobach argues that Marshall is too bland (“milquetoast” is the term he’s used) to make any real change in Washington. “Do you want a gutless wonder?” Kobach asked at the debate. For some GOP voters, Marshall certainly may be the safe choice, but that’s not exactly a positive thing in Kansas GOP primaries.
Enter wealthy plumber Hamilton. The Hamilton candidacy is interesting because not only is Hamilton spending large amounts of money on TV ads, but he is, in his ads and messages, trying to out-Kobach Kobach. Calling himself a “conservative businessman who will help Trump fight back,” Hamilton in his latest TV ads he has ripped into China and even questioned the true danger of the coronavirus, saying, “It’s time to go after China, fight the fake news panic.” After saying China has killed Americans, he added, “The media calls that racist; I call it the truth.” Hamilton therefore could offer a choice for GOP voters who are wary of Kobach but unexcited by Marshall. However, Hamilton turned in a subpar debate performance on May 23, calling into question his potential to be taken seriously.
For now the choice is not clear for many GOP voters. More debates – and yes, sorry, more TV ads – will be key factors to help them decide.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.