Previewing 2020 races in Kansas: Beyond Trump

Burdett Loomis
Special to Gannett Kansas

It’s tempting to label elections as “the most important” in decades, our lifetime, etc. Sometimes, as Kansans discovered in 2010, 2016 and 2018, elections do have real consequences.

Moreover, nationally, the 2020 prospect of re-electing Donald Trump makes the election important, to say nothing of his impeachment (and expected acquittal). Kansas, absent some 8.0-level political earthquake, will vote solidly Republican for president.

Nevertheless, 2020 does shape up as a significant year on both policy and political fronts in Kansas, with a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat and legislative battles over abortion and Medicaid expansion.

Indeed, these major issues are already on the table. Somewhat surprisingly, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly reached a solid deal to expand Medicaid.

After obstructing expansion in 2019, Denning fulfilled his promise to Kelly to develop a package in 2020. Although some uncertainties linger, with 22 Senate co-sponsors and a history of House support, the package should hold together. Moreover, Denning has a history of making big-deal compromises, most notably with the 2017 tax legislation.

Less surprisingly, Republicans are pressing hard for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. Almost certainly, a well-crafted amendment could muster the necessary two-thirds majorities in both houses to place an amendment on the ballot. But the wording and timing of the vote — either the August primary or the November general election — remain in doubt.

The 2020 primary, even without a constitutional ballot issue, is shaping up as a watershed in Kansas GOP politics. Open U.S. Senate seats rarely come up in Kansas, and Republicans have held both seats for more than 80 years. But any primary that includes the caustic, unapologetic Kris Kobach presents a major problem for Kansas Republicans. While he has a solid base in a multi-candidate primary, Kobach has a low general election ceiling, per his 2018 gubernatorial showing.

Kobach on the ticket would guarantee a highly competitive November general election, with Democrat Barbara Bollier, offering her party a once-in-a-century opportunity to capture a senate seat.

Right now, 1st District Rep. Roger Marshall is likely a slight primary-election Senate favorite. Largely because of his support from Republican elites and national funding sources, he has the most realistic chance to defeat Kobach. Marshall would be favored to defeat Bollier as well, but his deep conservatism and lockstep support for Trump might make this race surprisingly competitive against a female Johnson County Republican-turned-Democrat.

If one Republican primary race is not enough, there is a another, in the 2nd district, where state treasurer Jake LaTurner is challenging first-term congressman Steve Watkins. Watkins, the surprise winner in 2018, has not consolidated Republican support, and LaTurner represents the GOP establishment’s desire to maintain control of the seat.

Although Topeka mayor Michelle De La Isla might produce a competitive general election race, either Republican would be favored.

So, as we look ahead to the rest of 2020, the presidential campaign will take up much of our attention, but the most important decisions that will affect us all as Kansans will take place this spring in the Legislature and at the ballot box in August and November.

Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at