LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Kansas isn't a swing state. It is reliably red. So ahead of this Tuesday's primary, why are Republicans worried about a U.S. Senate seat that they've held for the better part of a century? Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service has an answer.
JIM MCLEAN, BYLINE: It's a combination of things - an incumbent who's retiring after nearly 40 years in Congress with no clear favorite to replace him, a global pandemic and a president who's slipping in the polls. That creates a rare opportunity for Democrats and spells trouble for Republicans fighting to keep their Senate majority, says David Kensinger, a longtime operative who managed former Kansas governor and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback's campaigns.
DAVID KENSINGER: If you start blowing states like Kansas or Alabama or South Carolina, the math becomes almost impossible.
MCLEAN: Eleven Republicans are running for the nomination, but only a handful are likely to factor in the outcome. Kris Kobach and Roger Marshall top that list. Kobach is a former Kansas secretary of state whose hardline views on immigration and voter fraud have made him a favorite with Trump voters. Marshall is a two-term congressman from western Kansas. He has the support of many establishment Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. By support, I mean millions of dollars in radio, social media and TV ads.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Roger Marshall is the Republican choice, standing strong with President Trump.
MCLEAN: Kobach, a self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidate, says McConnell made a mistake picking sides in the primary.
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KRIS KOBACH: Instead of using that $3 million to protect Republicans, which, really, a Senate majority leader probably ought to do, he's spending it in the Kansas primary trying to take out the conservative frontrunner, me.
MCLEAN: McConnell jumped in because of widely held concerns about Kobach's electability, says Kensinger - concerns rooted in Kobach's failed 2004 bid to unseat a Democratic congressman and his 2018 loss to Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor's race.
KENSINGER: So you have sustained real-world trials and evidence and data that say that Kris Kobach is an extremely poor general election candidate who absolutely could be the first Republican to lose a Senate race in Kansas in over 80 years.
MCLEAN: That record is why Democrats want to run against Kobach and why they're behind a slew of ads that tout Kobach as a true conservative and label Marshall a phony, a moderate whose support of former Ohio Governor John Kasich in the 2016 presidential race proves he can't be trusted to back Trump.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Roger Marshall - fake, fake, fake.
MCLEAN: About two-thirds of the approximately $14 million in campaign spending has come from out-of-state PACs. With few recent public polls to go on, that tells Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty the race is close.
BOB BEATTY: When PACs come in this late, that tells me they are looking at some polling. PACs come in when they can make a difference.
MCLEAN: The last independent poll showed Bob Hamilton inching closer to the frontrunners. He's bankrolling his outsider campaign with money from the sale of his plumbing company and setting records for the most ads in a Kansas primary.
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BOB HAMILTON: Together, my opponents have been running for office for decades. They can't shake up the establishment. They are the establishment.
MCLEAN: The media barrage and questions about Kobach's electability have given Republican voters a lot to think about - voters like Paige Harding from Dodge City, the chair of the Kansas Federation of College Republicans.
PAIGE HARDING: And I've talked to a lot of people that think Kobach would do the best job, but they don't think that he can win the general election. So I don't know if we could take that chance or not.
MCLEAN: The GOP winner will face Barbara Bollier, the presumptive and well-funded Democratic nominee. She's a state senator from the Kansas City area who switched parties in 2018 after winning reelection as a Republican.
For NPR News, I'm Jim McLean in Topeka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.