Government & Politics

Marshall kicks off Senate bid, pushing fight for GOP nomination into aggressive phase

Rep. Roger Marshall kicked off his Senate campaign on Saturday, seeking to join a decades-long line of western Kansas congressmen who became senators.

“If this nation is ever to find its moral compass again, it will start here, in Eisenhower’s heartland,” Marshall told a crowd of dozens at the Kansas State Fair.

The announcement continues a wild year in Kansas politics and sets the stage for an all-out brawl among Republicans to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts in 2020. Candidates will be fighting to claim the conservative mantle while attempting to raise the millions needed to fuel a top-tier campaign.

Marshall’s entry is the latest move — and one of the most significant — in an ongoing shakeup of Kansas Republican politics.

Sitting GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer lost his primary last fall to Kris Kobach, who then lost to a Democrat. Then Roberts revealed plans to retire, triggering continuing speculation that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might ultimately enter the race.

One by one, Republicans jumped into the Senate fray, including Kobach, who seeks redemption. Colyer asserted himself politically after ruling out a run of his own. And the first candidate to enter the race — Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner — became the first candidate to get out last week.

Marshall’s campaign continues the turbulent phase in Kansas Republican politics, drawing even more attention to the Senate race and setting up a wide-open fight to replace him in the vast first congressional district.

“The 11th commandment that Ronald Reagan had – don’t speak ill of a fellow Republican, don’t challenge an incumbent, if you will – I think politics has changed,” said state Rep. Ken Rahjes, a Republican who represents the northern Kansas town of Agra.

As if to illustrate the point, Marshall’s opponents moved quickly to paint the Great Bend OB-GYN as less than a true conservative.

“Marshall has disappointed conservatives on multiple issues from immigration to government spending. Kansas conservatives aren’t going to support him,” Kobach spokesman Danedri Herbert said.

The Club for Growth, a national conservative group that opposed Marshall’s House campaign in 2016, hasn’t decided whether to spend in the Senate race, said spokesman Joe Kildea. But it remains concerns about Marshall as a candidate.

“We have serious questions about his voting record and his status as a conservative,” Kildea said.

Marshall brushed aside those criticisms on Saturday, telling reporters that he has voted with President Donald Trump 98 percent of the time. FiveThirtyEight’s tracker of congressional votes backs that up: He has taken Trump’s position 97.8 percent of the time during his House career.

“I’m just wondering which votes they’re criticizing me on at this point. The only votes that I’ve voted against the president were on budget issues, major issues like that,” Marshall said. “So I’m not sure what conservative means. I’m not a politician. I’m a Kansan, a pragmatic Kansan that’s going to fight for Kansans. I’m going to stand beside the president.”

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said there’s an assumption among some people that Marshall is moderate. But, Miller noted, Marshall’s voting record is “extremely conservative.”

In 2016, Marshall defeated then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp in the Republican primary. Some Washington Republicans saw Huelskamp as too extreme and he had lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee – a major liability in rural western Kansas.

Miller called Marshall a “nicer version of Tim Huelskamp.”

For his part, Huelskamp disputes Marhall’s conservative credentials. In an interview Saturday, the former congressman said Marshall’s “not much of a conservative.”

Huelskamp also noted that Marshall had endorsed U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins during the Republican primary last year. Watkins has been a controversial figure even among Republicans and in recent weeks faced unsubstantiated rumors that he would soon resign.

Colyer influence?

Colyer flirted with a Senate candidacy before bowing out last month.

But he still exerted influence over the race. In late August, he called on LaTurner to drop his Senate campaign and run against Watkins instead.

Watkins squeezed by a crowded primary field with less than 27 percent of the vote in the second congressional district last year to replace former Rep. Lynn Jenkins.

Colyer criticized Watkins for “poor fundraising and a lack of coalition building.” Watkins’ chief of staff, Jim Joice, has responded that “insiders are once again trying to force out an outsider.”

Colyer’s public intervention politics came after he had largely stayed quiet since leaving office in January. That has led to speculation he may now try to assume the role of party elder among Kansas Republicans.

For Kansas Democrats, the role has been played in recent years by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Chris Reeves, the Democratic national committeeman for Kansas, said there are consequences to not having such a figure.

“How do they prevent primaries that just get swallowed up with tons of people running and no clear advantage? They can’t,” Reeves said.

Colyer didn’t respond to a call Saturday. David Kensinger, a GOP strategist who has managed statewide campaigns for retiring Sen. Pat Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback, said Colyer “remains the leading voice of the Republican Party in Kansas.”

Funding benchmark

LaTurner heeded Colyer’s advice and switched races this past week.

His decision could set a benchmark for what it takes to stay in the Senate race.

At the end of June, LaTurner had $469,753 cash on hand. By contrast, Marshall had $1.4 million.

“Anything less than LaTurner’s cash on hand come December 31 is definitely not enough and folks who can’t reach that threshold need to reconsider their candidacy,” Kensinger said.

Kobach opponents will be watching to see whether Marshall can dominate the field or whether other alternatives, such as Senate President Susan Wagle, former Chiefs player Dave Lindstrom and media commentator Bryan Pruitt, make inroads. Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb also continues to consider a run.

Sedgwick County illustrates the choice facing Republicans. Wagle, who has represented east Wichita in the House or Senate since 1991, is a favorite daughter candidate for the area.

“I do think, obviously, Sen. Wagle has an advantage being from Sedgwick County and having been elected since the 1990s,” said Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairman Dalton Glasscock. “I think Secretary Kobach has an advantage in name ID having been on the (statewide) ballot previously.”

But Marshall is also a known commodity and although his district doesn’t include any of Sedgwick County, he has cultivated Wichita-area relationships, Glasscock said.

Kansas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since George McGill in 1939 and Glasscock said that leads him to believe the 2020 election will go to the Republican candidate no matter what.

However, he said, “Republicans should be taking account of who can win the election.”

State Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, said he’s not taking a Republican victory for granted after Democrat Laura Kelly beat Kobach last year.

In a crowded Senate primary, Kobach could again emerge as the Republican nominee with a less-than-majority vote because he has a committed core of supporters, Delperdang said.

“It could be a repeat of the governor’s race,” he said. “I don’t want to see that.”

Pompeo’s shadow

Republicans are in near-universal agreement that Pompeo would instantly dominate the field of candidates if he runs.

Pompeo continues to draw attention to the topic, even as he brushes aside questions about his future.

The secretary of state conducted an array of interviews on Friday while in Manhattan to give a speech at Kansas State University – ensuring he would be asked about a possible run over and over.

He said repeatedly he was focused on serving as secretary and planned to stay as long as Trump wants. But he didn’t rule out a future run explicitly.

Asked whether he would step aside if Pompeo runs, Marshall said he is “great friends” with the secretary. He added that he’s in communication with Pompeo and his staff “real regularly.”

“I don’t anticipate that happening,” Marshall said. “We’re going to be going full speed ahead.”

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.