In a race with no shortage of drama and no shortage of spending, Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall made things relatively straightforward on election night, defeating Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier in what has been the most expensive race in Kansas political history.
Bollier gave Marshall the stiffest challenge put forth by a Democrat in the state in recent memory but still fell well short in a race that drew the eyes of national political observers to the Sunflower State.
Marshall will replace U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is retiring after 23 years in the U.S. Senate. Marshall has represented the state’s 1st Congressional District since 2016 and prior to that was a registered OB/GYN and chair of the Great Bend Regional Hospital board.
The Associated Press called the race shortly at 10 p.m., with Bollier calling to concede the race shortly thereafter.
In a victory speech, Marshall called Bollier "gracious" in defeat, saying "it was not an easy task" to run as a Democrat in the state.
He pledged to represent the voices of all Kansans, irregardless of who they voted for.
"If you’re a Kansan, Laina and I will proudly represent you and defend our constitution," Marshall said. "I believe that we’re always Kansans first and Americans first. That we will fight to end the division and we will fight to end the fighting between parties that doesn’t lead to progress. We’re going fight to find a path forward that all Americans can walk together."
Bollier said in her concession speech that it was a "sacred, patriotic duty to accept tonight’s outcome."
"Our campaign showcased the best of who Kansans truly are. We cannot allow disappointment in the end result to overshadow all we overcame to get this far," she said. "Remember, this race was never supposed to be competitive at all."
Bollier lost despite shattering fundraising records and attempting to use a moderate message to appeal to voters across the state. While Bollier won her home county Johnson County, it was by a smaller margin than initially expected, as she underperformed presidential candidate Joe Biden in the area.
Marshall, meanwhile, prevailed in virtually every county outside the traditional Democratic bastions in suburban Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Topeka and the college towns of Lawrence and Manhattan.
The campaign was characterized by sharp attacks from both sides. The medical background of both candidates repeatedly came into play, as Bollier called Marshall holding campaign events while not wearing a mask "shameful" in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marshall, meanwhile, sharply criticized Bollier’s record on abortion as "radical" and tried to elevate his pro-life stance by pointing to his own record as a doctor. One ad said Bollier supported late-term abortions, with Bollier hitting back with commercials of her own criticizing Marshall’s votes to end the Affordable Care Act.
Outside spending in the race ran over $30 million, a rarity for Kansas, which doesn’t often see the national interest the Marshall-Bollier tilt engendered.
Polling since the primary showed the race largely within the margin of error, a surprise given that Republicans were expected to hold the seat with relative ease following Marshall’s triumph over former GOP Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the primary.
That primary was a bruising fight in its own right, with significant spending from outside groups for both candidates — including Democrats spending in an effort to help Kobach, believing him to be the more favorable candidate given his loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race to Laura Kelly.
But Bollier remained on relatively stable footing against Marshall, with polling as recently as late October showed Marshall with a relatively modest four-point lead over Bollier.
His victory is reminiscent, some say, of Roberts vanquishing independent Greg Orman in 2014. With a shaky primary and the Democratic nominee dropping out, Orman briefly surged before Roberts pulled away to a 10-point win on election night.
While Kansas picked Kelly for governor in 2018, it still hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932.
Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Kansas, called the U.S. Senate a "whole different can of worms" for Democrats.
"Unless you really screw up, the Republican-ness of the state is likely to be a powerful influencer," Loomis said.
Marshall attempted to tie Bollier to more liberal policies, such as the Green New Deal, even though Bollier disavowed them. And he attempted to paint Bollier, who framed herself as a moderate voice, as a would-be pawn of Democratic leadership were she to get to Washington.
"If you vote for a Democrat U.S. Senate candidate in Kansas you’re getting (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer in the process," said David Kensinger, a veteran GOP consultant.
With the COVID-19 pandemic perhaps the biggest point of contention between Marshall and Bollier, it seemed fitting that Marshall addressed the issue head-on in his speech.
He asked aloud if 2020 "would be remembered as the year that a virus struck and caused the sun to set on the great American republic."
"That answer is no," he said.
The win was a credit, Marshall said, to the efforts of Republican organizers across the state and came as part of a strong across-the-board performance for the party up and down the ticket.
"I think Kansans have chosen freedom over socialism," he said. "They chose liberty over lockdown. That we believe in smaller government, not bigger government. We believe our republican powers are invested in the people where individual liberties triumph over all enemies. I believe our election results will help protect our Kansas values, our freedoms, our liberties — at least for another two years."