The most expensive race in Kansas political history is drawing to a close, with Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall and Democratic Kansas Sen. Barbara Bollier making their final case to voters over the next week that each candidate should be the state’s next U.S. senator.
As the hotly contested race fades to black, the pandemic and the flood of early voting that has followed means that a successful playbook has, in effect, been thrown out the window.
"It is a little hard to predict because we’re in uncharted territory," said Michael Smith, a professor of political science at Emporia State University.
Money is not likely to be a problem for either candidate. Federal Election Commission filings from Monday showed Bollier had raised $4 million thus far in October, bringing her fundraising haul overall to a record-breaking $24 million.
Marshall, meanwhile, netted $790,000 in October, bringing his overall total to $6 million, although he has benefited more from outside spending in the race.
The Republican has a baked-in advantage — Kansas hasn’t voted to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932 and President Donald Trump appears a near shoe-in to win Kansas’ six electoral votes.
Trump’s margin of victory could make an impact in down-ballot races, however, including the U.S. Senate. A New York Times/Siena College poll from last week showed Trump leading former Vice President Joe Biden by seven points, while Marshall had only a four-point gap with Bollier.
"Kansas has really had one competitive U.S. Senate race in the last 24 years ... We haven’t see this level of spending before," said David Kensinger, a veteran GOP consultant. "It is kind of new."
Marshall’s campaign took to social media Sunday night to push for a third debate to be aired on Kansas City-area TV networks, something many experts agree could be a sign he is struggling in the area.
A Bollier spokesperson quickly rebuffed the request, saying the candidate had "long-standing plans to travel around Kansas this week and speak with Kansans directly" and that Marshall is "desperate."
Bollier, meanwhile, is trying to shake off a rocky performance in the second debate last week, including multiple occasions when she appeared to lose her train of thought.
"Barbara Bollier is unwilling to face questions without prepared notes even in her own hometown of Kansas City," Marshall’s campaign manager Eric Pahls said in a text message. "However after he dismal performance in Wichita she has proven that without DNC taking points, she can hardly finish a sentence of substance. So I guess it makes sense."
But Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said it was unlikely that any of the back-and-forth on the debates would move the needle.
"They get more irrelevant the further down the ballot you go," he said.
The end story is a campaign with no shortage of intrigue in the final week, even as many Kansans have already cast their ballots.
As of Monday morning, 377,759 Kansans had already voted, either by returning their mail ballot or by using the advance in-person voting option. That number is roughly a third of the total number of votes cast in the 2016 general election.
Kensinger said campaigns can see who has requested a mail ballot, a practice that Democrats have favored thus far. Campaigns can then funnel resources into appealing to those voters with a ballot sitting on their kitchen table yet to be filled out.
And an uptick in early voting also means more time and money will be available to target those who are waiting to head to the polls.
"The thing about early voting that people might not realize is it is a gift to every campaign, Republican and Democrat alike," said Chris Pumpelly, a Wichita-based Democratic consultant. "The more people who vote early, the smaller the universe becomes of where you need to target your resources."
With advance voting in Douglas and Johnson counties among the highest in the state, that could potentially give Bollier time and money to spend in other key areas across the state, most notably in the Wichita area.
Pumpelly said he believed Wichita and surrounding Sedgwick County "does play an outside role in the state," even as much of the attention in this election cycle has drifted to undecided voters in and around Kansas City, Kan.
The NYT/Siena poll showed Marshall leading by eight points in Wichita, despite trailing by 12 points in the greater Kansas City area.
And Gov. Laura Kelly’s win of Sedgwick County in 2018 was a boost to her successful gubernatorial campaign in 2018, meaning signs are there that the county could be similarly important in 2020.
Meanwhile, local politics in Wichita have been roiled by a bombshell recording of three local Republican officials plotting to lie publicly about their involvement in an inaccurate television ad against Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, state Rep. Michael Capps and Wichita City Councilman James Clendenin have all faced calls to resign over their involvement in the scheme, and Pumpelly said it could sour voters on Republican candidates more broadly.
"That is a big deal because that is their closing argument," Pumpelly said, saying it could turn off moderates locally who are "sick" of political infighting.
Focusing on rural areas in western Kansas could also be a boon for Democrats, Smith said, not because Bollier has a real chance of winning those counties but because cushioning the margin of defeat would make a real impact.
"Democrats can’t just win urban areas, they have to avoid a blowout in rural areas," he said. " ... A strategy of ’well, many people in my base have voted early so I’m going to go out west’ might not be a bad idea."
And across the state, both candidates will be trying to reach what many experts figure to be a small group of undecided voters.
Smith noted that even those who proclaim to be unsure of which way they will vote are likely leaning one way or the other and that is where a last-minute ad blitz or get-out-the-vote effort could play a role.
"Undecided doesn’t mean 50-50, I’m in the middle and don’t know who to vote for," he said. "There might be a handful of people like that, but most undecided voters are leaning towards a candidate and waiting for that candidate to close the deal."
Miller noted that many of those who have yet to make up their mind on the U.S. Senate race lean toward supporting Trump, meaning Bollier will need to entice some of them to vote for a Democrat.
In that sense, he said, the race had changed little from August, after Marshall defeated the more conservative former Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the primary.
In other words, the more things change, the more they may stay the same.
"It is there for both candidates but it is easier for Marshall," Miller said. "That is not new."