Senate 2020: In Kansas, a Democratic Climate Hawk Closes in on a Republican Climate Skeptic

State Sen. Barbara Bollier says climate change is an urgent threat. U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, close to Trump, questions whether it’s even real.

Sep 16, 2020
Democratic Kansas state senator Barbara Bollier (left) and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) are vying for a seat in the Senate to represent Kansas. Credit: Barbara Bollier; Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Democratic Kansas state senator Barbara Bollier (left) and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) are vying for a seat in the Senate to represent Kansas. Credit: Barbara Bollier; Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This story is part of a series focusing on the climate records of candidates in key Senate races in November's elections.

At a Glance:

  • State Senator Barbara Bollier, a retired doctor from suburban Kansas City, says climate change is an urgent threat to her state and that Kansas should send a person with a background in science to the Senate.

  • U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a first-term Congressman and Trump loyalist, says he doesn't believe climate change is occurring and he has been flouting public health recommendations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • The race promises to be extremely close and will hinge on voters' attitudes toward the extremes of the Trump administration.

 

Marshall v. Bollier

In the deep red state of Kansas, where voters haven't elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s, a Republican-turned-Democrat has a greater shot at victory than anyone in decades. But Barbara Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist and state senator from suburban Kansas City, faces a tough race that's crucial for Democratic control of the upper chamber.

Bollier will face off against a fellow doctor, Roger Marshall, for the seat left open by retiring Republican Pat Roberts. Armed with a record-breaking war chest and the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Bollier trailed Marshall by one point in August polls, having closed a 10-point gap that favored Marshall in March.

The candidates positions on climate change are vastly different: Bollier says it represents a major economic and health threat; Marshall questions whether it exists at all. 

The race will reflect whether voters are discouraged by the extremes of the Trump administration and its allies, as Bollier was when she left the Republican party last year. A Democrat won the Kansas governorship in the most recent election, signaling that the GOP could be losing ground in the state. 

"The Republican Party, for all of its statements of having a big tent, continues to limit the tent," Bollier told the Associated Press in 2019. "Those of us who were moderates are clearly not welcome."

Though the candidates are both doctors and attended the same medical school, their adherence to the rigors of science seem to end there. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bollier stopped holding public events, shifting to virtual town halls. Marshall continued holding events and, as recently as August, wasn't wearing a mask. Bollier admonished Marshall for taking the anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment for Covid-19 promoted by Trump.

"I knew we were in trouble and so I've been very vocal from the beginning how serious this is," Bollier told the Wichita Eagle.

The candidates' divergent positions on public health extend to climate science. 

Marshall is a devoted Trump ally who, in his three years in Congress, has voted in line with the Trump administration 98 percent of the time, aligning with the president on most issues, including climate change.

"I'm not sure that there is even climate change," Marshall told a Kansas radio station in 2017. "I think it's something that we should continue to study and make sure our ecology continues to improve."

While the primary issues in the race are centered around education and healthcare, Bollier has said that climate change poses a critical threat to Kansans, particularly its farmers.

"Kansan farmers love to feed and power the nation. I'll listen to our farmers and be their voice in the Senate, working to promote the farm bill and combat climate change," she recently tweeted.

Bollier: 'I Am Now a Very Proud and Pragmatic Democrat'

As a Republican who served first as a state representative and then as a state senator, Bollier was often opposed to Republican positions. She frequently clashed with Republican colleagues over abortion, healthcare and gun control, earning her a reputation as a moderate. In December 2018, she announced she would become a Democrat, in part because of Trump.

"The Republican Party just went off the deep end," she said at a campaign event in January.  "As I found that I could not represent my constituents well, I left the party. I am now a very proud and pragmatic Democrat." 

Her campaign promises largely focus on expanding Medicaid and supporting schools, but Bollier has also said she would lean on her medical background to restore scientific fact into politics, including on climate change. 

"This is an urgent issue and we need to be addressing it and not ignoring it," she said. "One of the reasons why a woman of science needs to be there (is) to help them understand there is scientific evidence of this change. I think farmers sometimes vote what appears to be not in their best interest, but on my end, my first promise is I will commit to getting us reduced in our carbon output in this country by 50 percent by 2030, (and) by 2050, having the goal of net zero."

"If we don't deal with this, they won't be able to grow their crops. They're already looking at changes in the ability to water," Bollier added.

The Money Race: Kansas

Bollier is a supporter of wind energy, but draws the line on industrial wind development in the Flint Hills, a significant stretch of tallgrass prairie in the eastern part of the state.

She has been an adept fundraiser. According to The Kansas City Star, she raised nearly $4 million in the second fundraising quarter of this year, breaking the record for any federal or state campaign. But she faces an uphill battle, with analysts at the Cook Political Report saying the race leans Republican as of mid-August. 

Marshall on Trump: 'I Have His Back'

Marshall won a bruising Republican primary in August over controversial arch-conservative Kris Kolbach, the former Kansas Secretary of State, an immigration hardliner who has supported Trump's border wall, stronger voter ID laws and a national Muslim registry. Trump did not endorse either candidate, despite polling that showed Republican voters would switch to Bollier if Kolbach was the Republican candidate.

Though Trump chose not to endorse Marshall, a one-term House member the GOP has seen as their best hope, during his primary race, he is a staunch Trump loyalist.

"President Trump knows I have his back," he told the Kansas News Service. "I stood with President Trump through thick and thin."  

The conservative group, Club for Growth, attacked Marshall during the primary race, spending more than $640,000 to convince voters his positions were too moderate. Now Marshall's campaign seems to be using a similar tactic, attempting to paint Bollier as too extreme.

"Barbara Bollier has always been an extreme liberal, regardless of her party affiliation," Marshall wrote in a recent opinion piece, attacking Bollier for her positions on abortion rights, healthcare and climate change. 

He said that the Green New Deal proposed by the "socialist Democrats" would represent the "end of Kansas agriculture as we know it; the end of oil and gas as we know it."

Marshall has the backing of the hugely influential Kansas Farm Bureau and is a supporter of biofuels.

Marshall's district, nicknamed the Big First, covers a massive swath of western, northern and central Kansas and 63 counties.  

Though Trump won Kansas by 20 points in 2016, polling from early August shows he has a 7 percentage point lead going into the election. That is likely to help Marshall, even as populous, suburban areas of Kansas City—Bollier's home turf—have voted Democratic in recent years. 

The Takeaway: 

This race will be a referendum on Trump and whether suburban Kansas voters feel the Republican party has shifted too far to the right. The results will tell whether Bollier's campaign can withstand Marshall's attempts to paint her as a radical in a moderate's disguise. 

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