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

By JIM MCLEAN
Kansas News Service

OLATHE, Kansas — 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's booth at the Kansas Republican Party convention included a cutout of President Donald Trump. Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Kris Kobach’s booth at the Kansas Republican Party convention included a cutout of President Donald Trump. Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

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.

 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. Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
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. Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

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

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. 

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

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.

“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. 

 The crowd listens during the first GOP debate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pat Roberts. Credit Erica Hunzinger / Kansas News Service
The crowd listens during the first GOP debate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Pat Roberts. Credit Erica Hunzinger / Kansas News Service

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@kcur.org.