There’s been a changing of the guard in the U.S. Senate delegation from Kansas. Longtime lawmaker Pat Roberts is gone. He's been replaced by former western Kansas Congressman Roger Marshall, who has quickly become a political lightning rod. Jim McLean, with the Kansas News Service, has more.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Roger Marshall’s unflinching support of former President Donald Trump helped him vault over a crowded field of Republican hopefuls in the race to succeed longtime Kansas U.S. Senator Pat Roberts.
Roberts, like his successor, backed Trump and his administration almost without fail. But the now-former senator forged a career in a different era of partisanship that allowed more room for the occasional partnership with Democrats in the interest of lawmaking.
Marshall’s critics predict his Trump-first sensibility won’t leave as much room for compromise, or help him get things done in a Congress now controlled by Democrats.
Marshall’s backing of Trump’s baseless claims of massive voter fraud and his votes against certifying Joe Biden’s win in the Electoral College put him out of step with most senators — Democrats and Republicans.
His actions also put him in sharp contrast to Roberts, a 40-year veteran of the House and Senate whose sense of humor and low-key style allowed him some victories on legislation even if he never rose to the ranks of congressional leadership.
Several Republicans who had planned to join Marshall in challenging the election results changed their minds after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Marshall stuck with Trump, saying that the authority of several state legislatures to control the election process had been “usurped by governors, secretaries of state and activist courts.”
Many Kansas Republicans applauded Marshall’s stand, including Laura Tawater, the 1st District GOP chair from Dodge City.
“We cannot forget that this election was stolen and that we must never, ever surrender our country,” Tawater said in a tweet after returning from Washington, D.C., where she participated in the Trump rally that preceded the riot.
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who has written extensively on the inner workings of Congress and worked for some Democratic politicians, said Marshall’s votes to overturn the election may play with the Trump base but “got him off on the wrong foot” with his Senate colleagues.
That, Loomis said, could limit his effectiveness in a Senate divided 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans.
“One senator can have a huge impact,” Loomis said. “But I don’t see that happening (for Marshall) for quite a while.”
Marshall and Roberts are both conservative Republicans. But they’re from different eras.
Roberts’ political career arcs back to his days as congressional aide in the late 1960s. He cut his political teeth under the tutelage of former Kansas U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a conservative Republican known, among other things, for his willingness to compromise.
As the top Republican on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in the 1980s, Roberts worked closely with former U.S. Rep Kika de la Garza, a Texas Democrat and environmentalist who chaired the panel until Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.
“He was a dear friend and helped me out a bunch,” Roberts said.
Roberts became more partisan as the political divide widened and moderates lost control of the Kansas Republican Party to conservatives. A transition led by former U.S. Sen. and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
“Politics changed, I’m not sure he (Roberts) did,” said Leroy Towns, Roberts’ chief of staff for 22 years in the House and Senate.
The last four years, Towns said, were hard ones for Roberts. He supported Trump’s agenda but was one of several GOP senators who often disparaged him in private, according to sources who talked to famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.
“I’ve never met Carl Bernstein,” Roberts said when asked about the report. “I don’t know who he talked to that told somebody else that told somebody else that I might have said something in private.”
All in for Trump
If Roberts was a reliable vote for the Trump team, Marshall is an enthusiastic supporter.
He broke into politics in 2016 by defeating western Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp in a rough-and-tumble Republican primary. He held that seat and won last year’s U.S. Senate primary by tying himself to Trump.
“I’m running to keep standing by this president to stop the left’s socialist agenda,” he said when campaigning across the state.
Backed by Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Marshall won a crowded primary that included former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump advisor on immigration policy. He then defeated Democrat Barbara Bollier in the general election. He won both contests by wider margins than polls had predicted.
As a newly minted Senator, Marshall broke ranks with McConnell, and Jerry Moran, the other Republican senator from Kansas, by backing Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud.
Then, after voting to acquit Trump in the second impeachment trial, Marshall again parted ways with McConnell and Moran by refusing to hold the former president even partially responsible for the events of Jan. 6.
Moran condemned the former president for perpetuating misinformation that fueled the insurrection and for failing to move quickly to quell it. McConnell went further, stating there was “no question” that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the violence.
Marshall said Democrats exploited the crisis for political gain by impeaching Trump for a second time.
“The motivation was political hatred and was simply a continuation of the four-year impeachment fixation on the part of the House managers and the Democrat Party,” Marshall said.
Some large businesses have suspended contributions to Marshall and other members of Congress who voted to overturn the election results. More than 20,000 people have signed online petitions calling for his resignation.
That doesn’t necessarily spell danger for Marshall is in a state that Trump carried by 15 points, said Loomis, the KU political scientist.
“He’s a Republican in a Republican state,” Loomis said. “Plus, he won’t face voters for another six years and that’s a lifetime in politics.”
The Kansas Farm Bureau is one of Marshall’s most influential supporters. When the organization endorsed him, its president, Rich Felts, said he hoped the two-term congressman from western Kansas would help bridge the political divide if elected to the Senate.
“I’m really concerned about the polarization,” Felts said, “we’ve got to have people in the middle to negotiate.”
Though it could be argued that Marshall has done little so far to fulfill that hope, Farm Bureau spokesperson Meagan Cramer said the organization has no plans to withdraw its support.
“The endorsement isn’t perpetual,” Cramer said. “We expect candidates to earn support each time they stand for election.”
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.