Millions of dollars have flowed into a contentious Republican primary to fill retiring Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat as Kansas voters head to the polls next Tuesday.

The race for the Republican nomination has a handful of candidates running, but Rep. Roger Marshall and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are considered the front-runners.

The winner will likely face the presumed Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier in November. She left the Republican party in 2018, telling the Topeka Capital-Journal she switched parties because of the GOP leadership’s “hard-line rhetoric.”

The state’s open race has generated close to $14 million in advertising, and roughly two-thirds of spending is from political action committees (PAC), according to The Associated Press.

“It’s just astonishing,” Kansas State University Political Professor Nathaniel Birkhead told Agri-Pulse. For the Republican race, he pointed to the most recent campaign finance disclosures which show roughly $10 million has been spent in outside spending alone.

Birkhead said there are two reasons why this is happening, including outside spending by a PAC linked to Democrats running ads against Marshall.

“But then there’s also a huge interparty fight between the Republicans amongst themselves in terms of what direction the party should go,” he noted.

The GOP has not lost a Senate race in Kansas since the early 1930s, and Roberts wants to keep it that way.

On Tuesday, he suggested President Donald Trump should weigh in on the race to shore up the conservative base behind Marshall, who Roberts has already endorsed.

“He’d be welcome,” Roberts said. Some Republicans fear if Kobach wins, he will hand the election to Bollier; Kobach was the GOP nominee in the 2018 gubernatorial race that he would go on to lose to Democrat Laura Kelly. 

Winning the Kansas Senate race is critical for Republicans seeking to maintain a tight majority in the upper chamber; races in Montana, Colorado, Iowa, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina are also in play for Democrats trying to retake the Senate.

Trump has not thrown support behind either candidate yet, and his aides told The New York Times Thursday they had “no plans to change course.”

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Kobach said he and Roberts have a fundamental disagreement when it comes to the cattle industry and meatpackers.

“As the Senate Ag Committee chair, Roberts is obstructing a bill that would save Kansas cattlemen and keep them from going out of business,” Kobach said referring to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester of Montana's cattle price transparency bill.

Their bill would require meatpackers to buy at least 50% of their livestock on the open or spot market.

“Roberts would prefer to back the powerful forces of the meatpacking industry, just like the RINO (Republican in name only) Roger Marshall. I will stand with Kansas ranchers,” Kobach stated.

On agriculture, Marshall’s campaign website touted how he played a key role in crafting the 2018 farm bill. This includes advocating for fully funded crop insurance, supporting the overturning of the Environmental Protection Agency's Waters of the U.S. rule and securing internet access for rural Kansas, according to his campaign.

The site also noted he supported work requirements for able-bodied adults without children seeking to receive federal nutrition benefits. 

According to Federal Election Commission filings as of July 15, Marshall had $1,006,622.65 cash on hand and Kobach had $136,192.02. Bollier had $4,163,894.58. Marshall is the clear favorite among food and ag interests. According to FEC data compiled by the Center for Center for Responsive Politics, Marshall has received over $400,000 from agribusiness individuals and PACs; an Agri-Pulse analysis of PAC data in April did not show any recorded contributions to Kobach from the industry. 

However, Birkhead said California tech billionaire Peter Thiel has been pumping tons of money into Kobach’s campaign indirectly. Thiel’s most recent $500,000 donation on June 25 was through the Free Forever Political Action Committee. The PAC “promotes and advances candidates for public office who believe in our mission to keep America safe, sovereign, and free,” according to its website and has spent nearly $648,443 against Marshall.

Birkhead noted Thiel has contributed money to President Donald Trump’s campaign before and was skeptical Thiel would back Marshall if he wins the primary.

As the primary race nears its completion, there haven’t been too many public polls to gauge where things stand. University of Kansas Political Professor Patrick Miller told Agri-Pulse the last one was roughly a month ago, and things have changed since then including a major ad campaign from Bob Hamilton, the third major candidate in the primary.

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“He spent I believe over $2 million of his own money, primarily going to TV ads,” Miller said. “All of the polling that you’re going to find that is public, predates his advertising and won’t measure the effect.”

Whether Hamilton has risen in the polls from a distant third or much closer to Kobach and Marshall depends on what rumor you’ve heard, Miller said. As far as Kobach and Marshall, he said the race has consistently been viewed either as a tossup or with Kobach showing a lead. Miller said the only poll he's seen that had Marshall ahead was from the Marshall campaign.

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