The day Donald Trump was elected president, Barbara Bollier’s own political future was also at risk.
She was a moderate Republican in Kansas then, the kind of politician that had been largely pushed aside by conservatives in her own party. But that didn’t stop the retired anesthesiologist and then state representative from trying to catapult herself to an open state Senate seat held by the GOP in a district favorable to her centrist approach.
After a stressful campaign against a Democratic opponent, Bollier would go on to win the office representing a district on the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs. And Trump would go on to be president.
“I just was incredibly surprised,” Bollier told The Daily Beast of her reaction to the election of Trump, who she did not vote for in 2016. “...Probably because someone going from a television reality show to president wasn't something I visualized in our country.”
Now, Trump’s ascension and the fallout it’s caused is playing a key role in whether Bollier may be able to wrestle away a U.S. Senate seat from the GOP’s control with the Senate majority on the line. These days Bollier is a Democrat, giving her old party fits as she tries to win the state’s open U.S. Senate in a contest against a fellow doctor, OB/GYN and current congressman Roger Marshall.
“Well I'm going to be really clear, and I say this to everybody, my values haven't changed and my votes haven't changed,” said Bollier, who changed parties in December of 2018. “The party changed and kept changing more and thus my departure.”
This is the kind of federal race that Democrats have long struggled with in Kansas. But following a tumultuous period of GOP control in the state and the escalating tensions of the Trump era, Democrats are positioned with a rare opportunity.
Republicans had feared that by nominating Kris Kobach, the ardent Trump supporter and former Kansas secretary of state, they were at greater risk of losing the Senate seat that is normally easily held by the GOP. And efforts to woo Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, into the race failed. But even after Marshall beat Kobach in the August primary, to the delight of prominent Republicans in the state, the path to keeping the seat in GOP hands hasn’t been easy.
Polling obtained by The Kansas City Star has shown a tough fight to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and even Republicans in the state admit things are close.
One GOP operative with experience in the state, said the race would be "vastly worse," for Republicans had Kobach come to be the one facing off with Bollier, but conceded the race was being impacted by the president.
“Eventually by election day Republicans are going to come home and Donald Trump is going to win Kansas significantly and Roger Marshall's going to win Kansas as well,” the operative said. “At the moment, President Trump is underperforming and therefore the U.S. Senate race is underperforming.”
Bollier’s fundraising success has been particularly unsettling to her opponents. Her campaign announced earlier this week that they had raised “nearly $13.5 million,” in the most recent financial quarter in what the campaign dubbed a record-breaking figure for a Kansas race. And outside spending has come in on both sides in a further effort to try and boost candidates, according to Politico.
“Barbara Bollier has just been an excellent candidate,” said state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat. “2020 looks to be like the year of the woman, I think, and that's another thing that's to her advantage.”
Bollier’s path to this moment in Kansas has been a unique one, as national and state politics mixed together to give her an opportunity to be a tough opponent in the Senate race. She was elected to the state Senate in 2016 after serving in the Kansas House where her hope of getting Medicaid expansion passed for the state was thwarted by members of her party who fiercely opposed the Affordable Care Act.
Conservatives in Kansas, emboldened by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, had made a point of ejecting moderates in the statehouse during the 2012 election cycle. Earlier that year, Brownback had signed legislation drastically cutting taxes in the state and with more conservative Republicans in office he hoped to have even more power to push the state in an even more conservative direction.
Instead the tax cuts and additional legislation that followed helped put the state in a budget crisis that deeply tarnished Brownback’s standing in the state and led to fights over school funding. That backdrop helped propel a wave of moderate Republicans willing to criticize Brownback to unseat GOP incumbents in the state’s 2016 primary. And despite having to contend with the baggage of Brownback in the general election even as she openly criticized him, Bollier found herself besting her Democratic opponent by almost 9 points.
Conservatives in the state still controlled major legislative leadership positions however, even as Republicans left Brownback behind politically before he left office early to join the Trump administration. A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats that included Bollier were able to pass Medicaid expansion in 2017, but Brownback vetoed the move and lawmakers in the House failed to override the veto. Later that session, Bollier was among the bipartisan collection of lawmakers who overrode a Brownback veto to roll back the tax cuts in an effort to boost the state’s finances.
While serving as a Republican during her first state senate term, Bollier showed a willingness to clash with conservatives, while openly criticizing Brownback and finding herself to the left of her party on issues like guns and abortion.
In one episode indicative of the tenor of politics in Kansas, one of the most conservative members of the state Senate in one heated debate declared that Bollier was using “the same rationalization that was used by the Nazis,” as she opposed him over an amendment tied to abortion, according to The Kansas City Star. Bollier slammed the senator’s comments as “just sick,” the newspaper said.
Issues between the Kansas Republican Party and Bollier reached a point of no return during the 2018 election cycle. Never a favorite of Senate leadership, Bollier endorsed Democratic primary candidate Tom Niermann over her district’s then congressman Kevin Yoder, a Republican. What followed, according to The Kansas City Star, was a firestorm of Republican anger at Bollier with the GOP Senate president taking away her vice-chairmanship on the Senate’s public health and welfare committee as Bollier also made clear she’d support Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly in her run for governor if she made it through the state’s Democratic primary.
The newspaper also reported that the then-executive director of the state party was discovered posting in a Republican Facebook group “the senator has completely exposed herself and we will get her in 2020.”
Bollier did not leave the party at that point, but maintained her vocal support for Kelly, who would defeat Kobach in the 2018 general election in a year where moderates Republicans saw primary election losses in Kansas House races at the hands of conservatives. Yoder would also go on to lose to Democrat Sharice Davids in Bollier’s congressional district.
But by December of 2018, Bollier called it quits with the GOP and became a Democrat. Bollier says during her days in the GOP she had believed that she “could help move the party back to the common sense: let's work across the aisle, focus on local control of government, fiscal responsibility, funding our schools.”
“And the Republican party was not doing that anymore,” Bollier said. “And I worked for years to try to help make that change. And at a point (you) realize, you need to move on.”
In October of 2019, she opted to run for the open U.S. Senate seat instead of running for re-election in her state Senate district. The coronavirus pandemic has put even more of an emphasis on health care in political races this election season, and Bollier said “the president has not been a leader,” as she expressed disappointment with him when asked about his handling of the public health crisis.
Even before the pandemic, Bollier has focused her campaign on health care, an issue that also dominated her state Senate career.
“I'm a physician who has established herself in the legislature as a voice of reason,” Bollier said. “In listening to Kansans, the No. 1 concern they have is access to affordable health care and as a person who listens to the people, that's what we need to move forward and clearly my opponent stands in the way of having access to that care.”
But Bollier is still a Democrat in a Republican state. And winning a statewide race in a red state like Kansas means winning over Trump voters. That’s likely why Marshall’s campaign and other Republicans jumped on the attack after The Washington Free Beacon published a video earlier this week of Bollier speaking favorably about controversial gun policy in Australia.
Earlier in that same event, according to audio provided by Bollier’s campaign, the candidate had told the crowd unprompted that “I support the Second Amendment. I grew up hunting with my dad, it was great. I have one of his shotguns,” before adding later “I’m also a physician and I know that we have a public health crisis with gun violence.”
But in answering a question from a voter later on, Bollier talked about having a daughter who lives in Australia, saying “they have no guns, they don't allow them, they just took 'em all away. And you know what? It's pretty darn safe. It’s this amazing thing.”
Both Bollier and her campaign tried to counter the Republican attacks with Bollier tweeting “I support the 2nd Amendment and commonsense reforms we can agree all to, like expanded background checks.I do not support gun confiscation. I never have. I never will.”
While the governor’s office in Kansas often flips between the two parties, the same can’t be said for the U.S. Senate. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Kansas since 1932. And an attempt by Democrats to gather behind independent Greg Orman in 2014 in an effort to beat Roberts also fell short despite the state seeing a competitive race.
But Marshall has tied himself to the president with the conservative primary battle the congressman was forced to wage against Kobach potentially putting him at odds with moderate Republicans in the state who have soured on the conservative visions of leaders. One longtime Kansas GOP insider said: “Marshall's guys are pretty confident they're going to win by single digits despite the wave coming at them.”
“I can't tell if Trump is helping or hurting him,” the insider said. “Probably out west it's helping, just the fact that Trump's on the ballot. In Johnson County it's probably hurting him.”
Bollier’s campaign has focused on playing to the state’s base of moderate Republicans, an effort helped by people like state Rep. Jan Kessinger. Kessinger was elected to the statehouse in a moderate primary surge during the 2016 election season but was ousted by a conservative challenger in the August primary this year.
The longtime friend of Bollier, who has also appeared in campaign ads for the Senate candidate, doesn’t plan to switch parties like Bollier did back in 2018. But that’s not stopping him from continuing to make a public show of force for the state senator.
“It's extremely tight,” Kessinger said of the race. “And for a Democrat to be able to take a Senate seat in Kansas would be extraordinary."
And Bollier is clearly feeling more comfortable these days politically. She said many of her “positions affiliate in a lovely way with Democratic platforms,” but still touted herself as an independent voice.
“This is the first election I've ever been in with a party behind me,” she said. “I've never experienced that before.”