At first debate in Olathe, Republican candidates argue over who would best support Trump in the Senate

Kansas Republicans packed into a room in Olathe hear three of the four U.S. Senate candidates debate for the first time on Saturday.

By Jim McLean

Candidates determined to keep Kansas’ U.S. Senate seats in Republican hands quarreled Saturday over immigration, health care and federal spending, but no topic was more debated than who is the most friendly and in step with President Donald Trump.

In front of a standing-room only crowd at the 2020 Kansas Republican Party convention, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and state Senate President Susan Wagle argued over which of them was the most conservative and would be Trump’s most loyal foot soldier in the U.S. Senate.

Claiming that he’s voted with the president 98% of the time during his two terms in the U.S. House, Marshall pledged to “keep standing beside this president to stop the left’s socialist agenda.”

Kris Kobach, seen in a file photo, told the crowd in Olathe that he’d be Trump’s “point man” in tightening immigration laws.

But Kobach argued that since most of the legislation considered by Congress isn’t controversial, virtually all Republicans — even many Democrats — vote “with the president” most of the time.

“So, that’s not an answer to the question,” he said.

Kobach won the 2018 Republican primary for Kansas governor with Trump’s backing, but lost the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly. For many Republicans, that’s a cause for concern heading into what is likely to be the state’s most competitive race for a U.S. Senate seat in decades. Longtime U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring.

Republicans would be risking a seat they’ve controlled since the Great Depression by nominating Kobach, Wagle said.

“Oh, there’s no question we’d lose,” she said in an interview after the debate.

Kobach pointed to his two winning campaigns for Kansas secretary of state: “I can say that in this presidential election year I certainly will win again.”

The frontrunner for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination is Kansas Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who switched parties last year. She’s raised nearly $1.2 million since launching her campaign in October.

Marshall, whose 1st Congressional District covers roughly two-thirds of the state, is the runaway leader in fundraising on the Republican side: $1.9 million on hand as of Sept. 30, the end of the last reporting period. He hasn’t made his year-end fundraising report public. Kobach finished the year with $190,387 in his campaign account, and after loaning her campaign $275,000, Wagle ended the year with $522,683.

Marshall and Kobach have personal relationships with Trump, and both claimed to have met with him recently. Wagle can’t say that, so she touted her record as a leader in both the Kansas House and Senate.

“I’m the proven conservative in the race,” she said. “I get things done. People follow me.”

Debate details

After Saturday’s debate, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall talks with Charles Burton Starks, who used to live in Larned but now resides in Olathe. Photo credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service.

Immigration came up more than once during the debate. Kobach, who’s helped toughen immigration laws across the country, said he’d be Trump’s “point man” in an effort to do the same in Congress. Marshall said he has consistently opposed compromise proposals that would grant “amnesty” to people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their work visas.

The national debt, which the Congressional Budget Office says will reach $1 trillion in 2020, also made its way into the conversation. Kobach said he would hold the line on spending, and criticized Marshall for voting against a measure to reduce spending, adding Republicans talk the talk but “we don’t always walk the walk.”

Marshall dismissed Kobach’s charge as “fake news” from a “professional politician.”

Kobach also criticized Marshall for his May 2019 op-ed in the Kansas City Star that called for a stop to Trump’s tariff war due to the effects on Kansas farmers.

Kansas state Senate President Susan Wagle touted her work in the Statehouse. Photo credit Erica Hunzinger / Kansas News Service.

“It’s critical that the president have people who have his back,” Kobach said. “He cannot have Midwestern congressmen shooting arrows at his back when he’s trying to hold firm with China.”

That drew another heated response from Marshall: “That’s exactly what the national press does … they grab one little excerpt and spin it into a great big lie.”

Marshall, a physician, said that one of his top priorities is replacing the Affordable Care Act. He said he has worked with Trump for months to “outline” a policy that would reduce health care costs by increasing competition, but didn’t give any specifics during the debate or afterward to reporters.

Taking a shot at Kobach’s perceived weakness as a general election candidate, Marshall said that Kansas Republicans can’t risk losing to a Democrat who would “vote for Medicare For All,” a policy that U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are advocating for during their campaigns for the White House.

While vowing to stand with the president, Marshall said he would attempt to bridge the partisan divide by continuing to build personal relationships with Democrats at a weekly prayer meetings attended by members of both parties.

Wagle said she has never compromised her conservative principles but is the kind of leader who “brings other people under the tent.”

While it would be nice to return to the bipartisan way that Washington, D.C., used to work, Kobach said, he doesn’t believe that’s possible.

“We’re in a different era in politics right now,” he said. “We need a fighter.”

GOP candidate Dave Lindstrom was not able to attend the debate due to emergency surgery on Friday, but had a member of his campaign provide an opening statement.

Kansas News Service news editor Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.