WASHINGTON — Kris Kobach is seated on his couch next to a glowing fire in an old-fashioned stove. A mounted deer head looms from behind. He’s ready to talk about the Constitution, but he’s sideways.
After a quick iPhone adjustment from his wife, Heather Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state is upright as he begins his lecture on Facebook Live.
A few weeks ago Kobach was traveling around the state giving these talks. Now, like other 2020 candidates, he’s trying to adjust to campaigning in a pandemic. Technology has long been a tool for candidates to reach voters, but now it’s their only option. And it’s not always without hiccups.
“We had very best laid plans of mice and men. We had fancy cameras and microphones, but none of that worked so we’re doing it through iPhone. The good, old iPhone seems to save the day,” Kobach, a Republican and U.S. Senate candidate, says in the video.
He alludes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats, but he slams the Great Depression era president as a “big government proponent trying to justify ridiculous expansions in federal power.”
As Kansas and other states restrict social gatherings, Kobach and other candidates in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts have shifted to virtual campaigns to meet voters or raise money because gathering in person would be a public health hazard.
State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Democrat seeking the U.S. Senate seat, said she balances on an exercise ball as she makes campaign phone calls throughout the day.
“Right now there won’t be a bus tour around Kansas. To me that’s a tiny difference in one sense. It’s about connecting, and we’ll find a way,” Bollier said in a phone call.
“Campaigning for me is about listening to the people and hearing what matters most to them… and that will always continue on whether I’m doing it by telephone or virtual reality. That hasn’t changed.”
Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist married to a practicing family care doctor, was already running a campaign focused on health care. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the urgency of the issue, from expanding coverage to ensuring that health care workers have needed protective equipment. It dominated her March 27 telephone town hall with voters.
“I was a resident when AIDS was new. It hadn’t even been named yet, and we were dependent on all that protective personal gear because we didn’t know for sure how it was spread,” Bollier told The Star. “I cannot imagine being then without an assurance that it would always be there or being told to reuse.”
Her husband, Rene Bollier, risks exposure every day as he sees patients at his practice in Kansas City. At home, the couple are taking precautions, keeping their distance before he has a chance to clean up at the end of the work day.
Kobach said that his campaign has canceled in-person events through April.
“The advantage of online events is that people can attend from anywhere, watching at home. The disadvantage is that lots of events, such as parades, don’t easily convert into an online format,” he said in an email. “Comments during our Facebook live Constitution 101 were overwhelmingly positive.”
Kobach, the party’s 2018 nominee for governor, faces a crowded Republican field that includes Rep. Roger Marshall, Senate President Susan Wagle, former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Linstrom, Kansas Board of Education member Steve Roberts and Miami County businessman Bob Hamilton.
Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said her last public campaign appearance was a Reno County Farm Bureau meeting on March 12. Her plan is to focus on telephone town halls and social media for the foreseeable future.
“We’d obviously rather have the opportunity to meet voters face-to-face; however, digital and virtual campaign events allows us to reach a wider audience than traditional in-person town hall formats because voters can take part from their homes,” she said in an email.
Marshall, a Republican who represents western Kansas, said he has suspended all in-person events and, apart from a weekly conference call with his political team, he’s not campaigning.
“For all practical purposes since this coronavirus really hit Kansas, I’ve not had any campaigning,” he said in a phone call last month. “There’s not enough time, not enough hours in the day.”
He said he’s instead focused on his official duties, a message that makes sense for a sitting congressman in the midst of a national crisis. Marshall, an OB-GYN from Great Bend, said he’s been connecting with other doctors around the state to hear their observations about the virus from the front line.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said it’ll be interesting to see how Bollier and Marshall talk about the pandemic as medical professionals.
He said the issue could be complicated for Marshall, who has sought to closely align with President Donald Trump, because of the president’s constantly shifting message about the pandemic.
“It can be hard for Marshall to really tout his medical credentials when you have Trump saying we need to return to normal,” Miller said.
Miller said the campaigns most adversely be affected by the pandemic will be lower on the ballot, such as races for the Kansas Legislature, where door knocking and “meet-and-greet” events are essential.
“If this is our reality for longer than the next month, obviously campaigns are going to have to adapt but it’ll be interesting to see if voters adapt to how they’re engaging with campaigns,” said Miller, noting whether voters embrace the fully digital campaign season remains an open question.
For Senate candidates, mass media and the money to spend on television and digital ads will be critical, Miller said. Direct mail could also have a greater importance for candidates at all levels.
Marshall has a significant money advantage in the Republican race. As of January, he had $1.9 million cash on hand compared to Kobach’s $190,000. But he also has well-funded enemies.
Club for Growth Action, a conservative super PAC, announced last week that it has reserved $2.1 worth of television ad time for June 9 through Aug. 4, the day of the Kansas primary.
“The ads will be against Marshall and are just the beginning; Club for Growth Action will continue to make investments in the race,” said Joe Kildea, the group’s vice president for communications, in an email.
Club for Growth has not endorsed a candidate, but Kobach said the group’s involvement in the race would be beneficial to his campaign.
The group’s antipathy toward Marshall dates back to 2016 when he ran a successful primary campaign against Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a favorite of the Tea Party movement.
Brent Robertson, Marshall’s campaign manager, noted that Club for Growth also opposed President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primary.
“It’s hard to get much swampier than the anti-Trump Club for Growth in DC. Dr. Marshall cares about actual Kansans and that’s where he will remain focused,” Robertson said in a statement.
Marshall, Kobach and Wagle all had months worth of traditional campaigning before Kansans had to confine themselves to home.
But Hamilton, owner of Bob Hamilton Plumbing, entered the race last Monday, two days after Gov. Laura Kelly issued a statewide stay at-home order and when media was focused pandemic.
“Bob is doing what everyone is doing, he’s caring for his coworkers, family and friends. He has been a candidate for 72 hours and is making phones calls one at a time,” said Casey Burns, Hamilton’s political director, in an email Thursday when asked how the campaign planned to overcome the challenge of launching in this unique environment.
“I mean, good luck and God bless,” Miller said. “He’s getting in rather late… unless you already have a really prominent stature this is a little late to get into this race and to be a serious candidate.”
Hamilton’s campaign passed up an opportunity to appear this week on the Pete Mundo Morning Show on KCMO Talk Radio, a program which has been an important forum for candidates so far in this race.
“I mentioned all this on the air, but if you can’t do a layup, get-to-know-you interview with a conservative-leaning talk radio audience, then how are you going to jump into a crowded campaign, late, in the middle of a national pandemic, and have a shot?” Mundo said in a message.
Mundo said Hamilton’s consultants told him they couldn’t make the schedule work. His campaign didn’t offer an explanation to The Star when asked Friday.
Candidates running in the GOP primary for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District are also trying to adapt to the environment.
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids’ campaign said her focus has been on connecting people with essential resources during the crisis and advocating for more test kits for the region. But her challengers are also staying active.
Former Roeland Park Mayor Adrienne Vallejo Foster has ramped up phone banking in lieu of going door to door. Former Burns & McDonnell executive Mike Beehler held a town hall on Facebook. Amanda Adkins, former Kansas GOP chair has posted videos to social media from her kitchen— to demonstrate social distancing—and has added a COVID-19 section to her campaign website.
Sara Hart Weir, the former president of the National Down Syndrome Society, said in an email the pandemic has caused trade in-person gatherings for zoom meetings “but even bigger than that is how it changes what you talk about. People do not want to hear partisan arguments, they want to know how you can fix this.”
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