TOPEKA, Kansas — It’s little surprise that the candidates for Kansas’ open U.S. Senate seat sharply disagree on taxes, trade, immigration and climate change. What’s unclear is who voters will most agree with in November: Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall or Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier.
Bollier, a retired doctor, believes Marshall’s down-the-line support of President Donald Trump has created an opportunity for her to ride anti-Trump sentiment in the state’s population centers to an upset.
But Marshall is betting on his support of Trump’s tax cuts, trade tactics and hard-line position on immigration to carry the day in a state where the president remains relatively popular with voters. Summing up his core message at a primary debate, Marshall declared, “I’m running to keep standing by this president and to stop the left’s socialist agenda” — including “radical” immigration and environmental policies.
Bollier, however, said those tax cuts benefited the wealthy over middle-class Kansans and that the president’s trade policies were “reckless” and punished Kansas farmers. Essentially, Bollier said in the first debate of the general election, Marshall is voting “the way he is told (by party leaders) rather than what’s best for Kansas.”
“We need political leaders in Washington who will stop the political bickering, stop attacking one another and just get things done,” said Bollier, a moderate former Republican who switched parties in 2018.
Marshall, a two-term congressman from western Kansas and retired obstetrician from Great Bend, claims the federal tax cuts enacted in 2017 spurred the pre-COVID-19 U.S. economy to record heights and substantially lowered taxes for middle-income Kansans.
“It was the greatest economy of my lifetime,” Marshall said in a recent interview with the Kansas News Service. “The average Kansas family was keeping $2,000 more of their hard-earned money.”
A pro-Marshall campaign ad produced by One Nation, a political action committee that doesn’t have to disclose its donors and is connected to Republican political operative Karl Rove, praised Marshall for supporting tax cuts that it said “will increase average household income by $4,000.”
Both that claim and Marshall’s are misleading, according to Frank Sammartino, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
“There was an increase in people’s after-tax income,” Sammartino said, “but it wasn’t anything like $4,000 across the board.”
The figure used in the ad comes from projections Trump’s Council of Economic advisers formulated to boost support for the legislation as Congress was debating it. A Tax Policy Center analysis shows that the cuts reduced federal taxes for Kansas families earning between $50,000 and $75,000 by an average of $930, and 60% of the benefits went to the wealthiest 20% of Kansans.
Other provisions in the tax bill, Marshall said, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act mandate that required Americans to purchase health insurance, added to the savings.
But Bollier pushed back, pointing to the uneven distribution of benefits and the fact that the tax cuts “ballooned” the federal budget deficit,
“We need a tax system that is fair to all,” she said.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is proposing to repeal the tax cuts for those making more than $400,000 a year. Bollier doesn’t support “a full repeal of the Trump tax plan,” spokesperson Alexandra De Luca said. Instead, she favors making the middle-class tax cuts permanent and closing “loopholes for corporations and the wealthy that are driving up our national debt.”
Marshall concedes that the tariffs Trump imposed on China hurt Kansas farmers. But, he said, producers will benefit in the long run. He believes the get-tough tactics resulted in a “stronger” trade deal.
“I was just so grateful that Kansas farmers stood beside us and helped get us through those trade wars,” Marshall said. “They knew we had to stand up to this bully.”
On several occasions, Marshall has said the Phase One deal has boosted trade with China by 14%. However, U.S. exports to China during the first half of 2020 were down 4.6% compared to the first half of 2019 and 16.5% lower than the corresponding period in 2017.
And an analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows China falling far short of the purchasing targets it agreed to. For example, it committed to increase its purchases of U.S. agricultural goods by approximately $37 billion in 2020; halfway through the year, China had spent only $9.9 billion.
Bollier said that Marshall had the chance to stand up for Kansas farmers, but that he “instead chose to be a yes man for the president and for these harmful policies.”
But Marshall has the support of the Kansas Farm Bureau, an influential organization that represents thousands of farmers and ranchers.
“Our members like him and they respect him,” said Jackie Brundt, a Pratt County farmer who serves on KFB’s endorsement committee. “They’re the ones who said ‘Marshall’s our guy.’”
In 2018, Marshall worked on a bipartisan immigration plan that, among other things, would have protected a visa program that supplies Kansas farmers with seasonal workers. He also questioned the practicality of Trump’s plan to fortify the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
When those positions led to attacks from rivals in this year’s primary race, Marshall pivoted to a more hardline stance on immigration. He embraced the wall and accused Bollier of being for “open borders and sanctuary cities.”
“She will open the door to all immigrants and they will get a free ride,” he said.
Responding during their recent debate, Bollier said Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform is an example of “how broken Washington is.”
If elected, Bollier said, she would work for a bipartisan compromise that secures the border and protects “Dreamers who were brought to this country through no fault of their own.”
“I will be very supportive of making sure people have a path to citizenship,” she said.
Marshall said his efforts to strike a compromise have led him to the “disappointing” conclusion that “Democrats do not want to fix this situation.”
Marshall has said voters can assume that Bollier’s switch to the Democratic Party means she supports “radical” proposals such as the Green New Deal, a sweeping plan advocated by more left-leaning Democrats to address climate change.
“The Green New Deal will be the end of Kansas agriculture,” Marshall asserted.
Bollier, however, said she doesn’t support the proposal, telling Marshall to “stop deceiving voters.”
Undeterred, Marshall said Democratic leaders in Washington will “come after her vote and she’s going to give it up.”
Editor's note on Sept. 25: This story has been corrected to show the deal with China was for $37 billion, not million.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.