Opinion

Will Kansas go blue?

Thanks to Republican failures, Democrats have a shot. Is there a lesson for the country?

An extraordinary thing is happening in my home state of Kansas: A Democrat has a real shot at winning one of the state's U.S. Senate seats.

That Democrat, Barbara Bollier, isn't a shoo-in — she'll need a strong finishing kick in order to defeat the Republican candidate, Roger Marshall. But she has raised far more money than Marshall, and several political outlets rank the race as a tossup, or nearly so.

This almost never happens. The state's last close Senate race was in 1974, when incumbent Sen. Bob Dole (R) won a squeaker over challenger Bill Roy. The last Democrat to actually win one of the seats was George McGill, who served during the Great Depression. Otherwise, Republicans have dominated the statewide races for federal office.

Bollier isn't the only Democrat to mount a serious challenge to red state Republicans this year. Jamie Harrison is pushing Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina; Theresa Greenfield is giving Sen. Joni Ernst a run for her money in Iowa; and MJ Hagar is making things interesting for Sen. John Cornyn in Texas.

In Kansas, at least, the GOP's vulnerabilities have been in the making for the better part of a decade. Since 2011, Republicans have made three major missteps in Kansas that have also been reflected at the national level:

They alienated women: Bollier, a state senator, was a Republican until 2018. Then she led an exodus of elected GOP women to the Democratic Party — citing, in part, President Trump's misogyny. "I don't even know what to call him," she told the Kansas City Star at the time. "He is our president, but he is not representing my value system remotely." In her current race, Bolllier has been endorsed by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a moderate Republican who served the state for nearly two decades.

Republicans are also suffering a massive gender gap at the national level. A September national poll gave former Vice President Joe Biden a 31-point lead over Trump among women voters. Bollier's jump from the GOP to the Democratic Party, and her strong Senate campaign, hints that gap is also found in down-ballot races.

They failed at governing: Years before Trump won office, then-Gov. Sam Brownback (R) launched the "Kansas experiment," an exercise in governance by Republican id. Taxes on business and high-end earners were slashed, and government services like education were put on starvation diets. The experiment failed — the state's job growth lagged its neighbors and the nation — and Kansas voters quickly grew tired of watching their schools struggle for funds. In 2016, they turned Brownback's conservative allies out of the Kansas legislature in favor of moderates who reversed the tax cuts and restored government funding. Soon after, Brownback left Kansas to serve in the Trump administration.

Nationwide, Trump is similarly burdened now by his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has — since almost the beginning of the crisis — repeatedly promised that the virus will soon disappear, even as the death toll has mounted to more than 200,000. Meanwhile, the Senate GOP appears dead-set against all but a bare-bones stimulus as the economy continues to reel from the pandemic's fallout. The party is failing, and voters know it.

They lost the suburbs: You probably think of Kansas as a farm state, and you'd be mostly right. But in recent decades the state's rural areas have lost population, while the areas around Wichita and Kansas City have continued to grow, and grow more Democratic. It took just a few of those more heavily-populated counties to give Democrat Laura Kelly a win in the 2018 gubernatorial race — and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), the only Democrat in the Kansas congressional delegation, serves a district anchored mainly in the KC suburbs.

That mirrors national trends, of course. Republicans continue to have a strong appeal in rural areas, but their problem is that those rural areas often have fewer and fewer voters every year. And suburbs these days are more diverse and have more Democrats than ever, despite a lingering reputation from the era of white flight. Trump, as a result, has been reduced to asking suburban women to "please like me." The evidence suggests they don't.

This may not be the year Kansas becomes a blue or purple state. Bollier could still lose her race against Marshall. But Republicans are finding it more difficult to hold onto their advantage here — and that is a problem of their own making.

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