‘One of the top endorsements’: In Kansas, Bob Dole could make or break GOP candidates

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When Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, already taking heat for income tax cuts that would later tank the state budget, formally filed for re-election at a Statehouse ceremony in May 2014, he made sure Mary Eisenhower and Bob Dole were at his side.

The message wasn’t subtle. The presence of the granddaughter of Kansas’s first and only president, and the man who almost became the state’s second, invoked towering political legacies.

Kansans liked Ike and they loved Dole.

“In Kansas … they get things done,” Dole said of the Brownback ticket, which went on to victory six months later.

Dole’s death on Sunday, at 98, has brought to an end a particular kingmaking era in Kansas Republican politics. Right into his final days, an endorsement from the legendary former senator and presidential nominee was enough to sway a race and steer donors.

Outside of former President Donald Trump, no other endorsement carried the similar weight of a Dole nod. Despite not living in Kansas for years, Dole kept a close eye on state politics and wasn’t hesitant to wield his influence toward the goal of electing Republicans.

Kelly Arnold, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said that during his time leading the party he kept in touch with Dole’s staff. The former senator “truly cared about what was going on in the state of Kansas,” he said.

“He’s still a giant in the Kansas Republican Party. He’s somebody, honestly, who was actively engaged in state politics up until the time of his death,” said Arnold, the current Sedgwick County clerk.

Gov. Sam Brownback smiles as former Sen. Bob Dole speaks during a ceremony in which Brownback officially filed for re-election May 15, 2014.
Gov. Sam Brownback smiles as former Sen. Bob Dole speaks during a ceremony in which Brownback officially filed for re-election May 15, 2014.

In the 2020 Senate race, Dole backed Roger Marshall over Kris Kobach in the GOP primary. Marshall, then a western Kansas congressman, early in the race contended with murmurs that he wasn’t conservative enough going up against Kobach, an immigration hardliner and early Trump supporter who had lost the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly.

Dole’s support in January 2020 offered a coveted GOP seal of approval to Marshall, who easily beat Kobach that August and won the general election in November.

“I think he was concerned that in our primary that if the wrong person was elected they couldn’t win a general,” Marshall said.

Marshall said Dole always polled well in Kansas, “higher than anyone else out there who’s name wasn’t Bill Self or Bill Snyder,” and his popularity helped create his power in Kansas politics.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Dole’s endorsement of Marshall was “critical.” He noted Marshall’s campaign released an ad featuring Dole saying he trusted Marshall.

This summer, Dole endorsed Attorney General Derek Schmidt over former Gov. Jeff Colyer in the Republican primary for governor. The nod was a reversal from 2018, when Dole had embraced Colyer over Kobach, and helped Schmidt begin to cement a frontrunner reputation.

Colyer dropped out of the race in August, citing a prostate cancer diagnosis, and Schmidt became the presumptive nominee.

Dole didn’t pick winners every time, but always appeared influential. Colyer won Dole’s endorsement less than two weeks before the 2018 Republican primary for governor, but lost by 343 votes. The incredibly slim margin raised questions about the role Dole played in getting Colyer within a hair of besting Kobach.

“When one of our candidates for a statewide office jumps into running for office, one of the first things they’re looking for is, ‘let’s get Bob Dole’s support, let’s get his endorsement,’” Arnold said. “That was one of the top endorsements you can have here in Kansas.”

Few politicians have been able to match Dole’s influence in his home state.

Those that have been able to build up their version of a political machine — senators like Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley — use their longevity in Congress to foster young talent in support of a larger strategic vision for their political party.

For those “kingmakers” an endorsement doesn’t just mean a name candidates can put on their campaign website. It helps attract donors, staffers and party activists; builds a campaign infrastructure that helps determine whether a candidate has the resources to compete.

“Ultimately it’s how much credibility you have with people,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant. “There are plenty of people who spend a long time in Congress but they don’t necessarily have the sort of credibility or they haven’t built the kind of organization that would necessarily be deployable beyond just what it does for that individual person.”

‘No single replacement’

Whether another figure will eventually fill Dole’s role is a question only time can answer. But in interviews, Republicans appeared skeptical any current politician would achieve the same level of clout anytime soon.

“There’s no single replacement for Bob Dole,” said David Kensinger, who served as campaign manager and chief of staff to Brownback, adding that perhaps a coalescence of Republican leaders could have a similar effect. He pointed to how an array of GOP officials endorsed Schmidt after Colyer dropped out, all but assuring the nomination for Schmidt.

Kansas state Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, suggested Sen. Jerry Moran comes the closest. Moran has been in the Senate for more than a decade and was in the House for 14 years.

Former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, the first Kansas woman to serve in the Senate, is a respected elder of Kansas politics. She drew attention for endorsing Kelly, a Democrat, over Kobach in the 2018 governor’s race, but her brand of moderate Republicanism has fallen out of favor across much of the party.

Former Sen. Pat Roberts is adored by Kansas Republicans, after leaving the Senate in January. He has also shown an interest in intervening in races, including endorsing Schmidt for governor in July, which he offered simultaneously with Dole.

“There’s nobody else right now. Mike Pompeo can get a group,” Beatty said, referring to the former U.S. secretary of state. “Kris Kobach can get a group. There’s silos right now. Dole was able to bridge a lot of different constituencies.”

And certainly Trump — though not a Kansas figure — remains highly influential among conservatives. The former president, who very well may run for president again, commands intense loyalty from parts of the Republican base and any endorsement he delivers in a GOP primary can make or break a candidate.

But Trump doesn’t enjoy the kind of universal respect Dole had across the political spectrum that allowed him to nudge Republicans, independents and perhaps even the occasional Democrat.

“He’s almost Eisenhower level. That was his time before,” Masterson said of Dole. “Right now I don’t see anyone else yet, I’m not saying it can’t happen again, but I don’t see anybody else.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard and McClatchyDC’s Bryan Lowry contributed reporting.

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