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What To Expect From Republican Senate Primary In Kansas

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932. But tomorrow, the state votes in a primary that has many Republicans worried. They fear that the wrong choice on Tuesday will lead to losing that seat in the general election and with it the GOP Senate majority. Joining us from Washington is Bryan Lowry, a reporter with the Kansas City Star covering the race.

Welcome, Bryan.

BRYAN LOWRY: Thanks for having me.

VANEK SMITH: So Bryan, lay this race out for us. Who is running?

LOWRY: So the top two candidates in the Republican field are Kris Kobach, who was the party's nominee for governor in 2018 who went on to lose, and Roger Marshall, who is the congressman from western Kansas. He represents Bob Dole's old seat in the U.S. House. So these are the top two Republicans, and you have national Republicans spending a lot of money to help Marshall and to hurt Kobach. And meanwhile, Kobach is getting support from a strange coalition, which includes, actually, national Democratic groups trying to come in and get him through the primary because they feel that Kobach will be the weaker candidate when he faces likely Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier in the general election.

VANEK SMITH: OK. We are one day out. What is the state of the race? How close is it?

LOWRY: It's very tight between Kobach and Marshall. It looks like we might have a replay of the 2018 gubernatorial primary, which was the closest gubernatorial primary in the history of the United States, which Kobach ended up winning that by just a little bit more than 300 votes. So it's very tough to predict. It's very close between Marshall and Kobach. And one thing that complicates it is there's actually 11 GOP candidates on the ballot. And so while it's really a race between two guys, there are a lot of guys who could play spoiler here. And there's just so much national money coming in and very vicious attack ads on all sides that have been dominating the airwaves in Kansas.

VANEK SMITH: So step back for us a bit, if you don't mind. Many people will likely have heard Kris Kobach's name because of his work with President Trump on the voter fraud commission. But what is his record in Kansas?

LOWRY: So Kris Kobach served two terms as Kansas secretary of state, and his two hallmark policies during that time was he managed to persuade the Kansas legislature to give him prosecutorial power. He was the only secretary of state in the nation who had that power, and he brought some voter fraud cases against private citizens. And that was related to Kobach's other policy that required voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or a passport, before they could register to vote.

That made Kansas elections very complex. There were thousands of people who ended up on a suspended voter list, and there was a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and others that ultimately led to this getting struck down in 2018. So it - Kobach also had a lot of controversy because of his extracurricular activities, where he was serving as a columnist for Breitbart and he was helping advise small towns that were looking to adopt ordinances against illegal immigration.

VANEK SMITH: So from what I understand, Democrats would love to see Kobach win. I guess they're gambling that he's so disagreeable to moderates that many Republicans would not vote for him in November. Do you think that's likely?

LOWRY: It's tough to say. Obviously, what people are pointing to is the results of the 2018 election for governor where Democrat Laura Kelly, who is a close ally of Barbara Bollier, beat Kobach - beat him solidly in a very Republican-leaning state. But there is a difference between races for U.S. Senate and races for governor. There's different issues, and there's also the history. Kansas has elected Democratic governors with some frequency, but they haven't gone with a Democrat in a Senate race since the Great Depression. And that's because Senate races tend to be driven much more so by partisanship.

But you look at the field right now, and you see the fact that Barbara Bollier has raised eight times the amount of Kris Kobach, and that's why Democrats are feeling not necessarily confident but much more competitive than they normally would be. And that's also why Republicans are sweating a race that they normally wouldn't sweat too much.

VANEK SMITH: Bryan Lowry is a reporter for The Kansas City Star.

Bryan, thank you.

LOWRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.