Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went to bed Tuesday night with one less fear of losing his gavel, his grip on power threatened by one fewer fringy contender.
As Kansans cast their ballots in the state’s Senate primary yesterday, the GOP Establishment in Washington was publicly confident that two-term Rep. Roger Marshall would prevail against former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a candidate cut from President Donald Trump’s playbook. Privately, though, they were hitting refresh on the vote tallies and fretting that Kobach may put the state and the GOP’s Senate majority in play come November.
In this era — with a pandemic raging, public polling largely absent, private polls looking like a shotgun pattern and traditional campaign tactics like door-knocking verboten — nothing can be certain. Kobach was seen as such a threat to Republicans’ control of the Senate that a Democratic super PAC flooded Kansas with at least $5 million in ads trying to swing the nomination his way — or at least make Marshall a less-appealing candidate to true conservatives.
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Republicans are in their sixth year in the Senate majority and increasingly worried that it may be their last. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the party, especially if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the White House and comes back to Washington with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to rubber-stamp his agenda. Kobach, best known as the nation’s leading promoter of debunked claims of voter fraud and an adviser to anti-illegal immigration crusades, was seen as a surefire way to help Democrats win Kansas’ Senate seat and chip away at the chamber’s Republican majority. In the end, McConnell got his man in Marshall, a physician by training who only entered politics in 2016.
Kansas is a crucial part of the Republican Party’s hold on the Great Plains. But GOP dominance in November is not guaranteed in that stretch of the nation, from North Dakota to Texas. In 2014, incumbent Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts botched his re-election so badly that D.C. Republicans dispatched their favorite wunderkind to take over the race and save the seat from a very real Democratic threat. (Read my profile of campaign savior Corry Bliss here.) Roberts won, but promised in turn to retire. For the last two years, Washington Republicans tried to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to move home and run, but they came up short. Instead, they settled on Marshall, a House member who, three years into his time in Washington, is the dean of the Kansas delegation.
The fact that Kansas was ever in play suggests that Republicans are sketching a path to retaining power in the Senate based on, at best, a soft base of support. Trump won Kansas by a comfortable 6 points. L.B.J. was the last Democrat to win there in 1964 and F.D.R. was the last before that in 1936. But you can’t discount the fact that the state sent a lesbian Native-American former mixed-martial-arts fighter to Congress in 2018. That’s why Republicans were celebrating their apparent dodge of a controversial Trump disciple who could launch the state’s liberal minority to action. In Marshall, Republicans have good odds of holding the seat. McConnell wishes he had that confidence in a half-dozen other states with even more competitive contests.
A version of this article first appeared in The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.