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How Kansas Senate Primary Might Affect Election


The White House is not all that's at stake in November. So is the Senate majority. Republicans are working hard to keep control and are closely watching today's primary race in Kansas. GOP strategists fear that if Kansas' former Secretary of State Kris Kobach wins the nomination, the GOP could lose the Kansas Senate seat in November and take their majority down with it. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us for the latest.

Hi, Sue.


SHAPIRO: Why are Republicans worried about Kris Kobach winning today's primary?

DAVIS: Yeah. So, I mean, Kansas is a really Republican state. It hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932. So it's not like Republicans can't win in Kansas. It's just that I've spoken to a lot of strategists that believe this one very specific Republican cannot win. Kobach is a divisive candidate. He's really well-known in the state but mainly for negative reasons like his legal actions against voter fraud that were ultimately undone in the courts.

The fear they have around his candidacy is that while he has a lot of support among the base, he repels centrist Republicans, women, suburban voters. And all of that could contribute to the Democrat that's expected to clinch the nomination today, State Sen. Barbara Bollier. And Democrats know this. It's why they've been meddling in this race. Democratic-aligned super PACs have been running attack ads against Kobach's primary opponents to try to elevate his candidacy.

SHAPIRO: And where does the Kansas race fit into this larger puzzle of who retains control of the Senate this year?

DAVIS: The fact that we're even talking about Kansas is itself a sign of the political climate Republicans are facing about 90 days out from the election, and it's not good. If Republicans can hold Kansas, the people I talked to are more optimistic they can hold the Senate even in a scenario where Joe Biden wins the White House. But even if it's mathematically possible to lose Kansas and hold the Senate, I haven't talked to anyone who believes that it's probable that they could hold the Senate and lose a seat in Kansas.

SHAPIRO: So which other states are going to be most likely to decide the majority?

DAVIS: The orbit's about 10 races, and Republicans are on defense in nine of them. They only have one real shot to pick up in Alabama. That's where incumbent Sen. Doug Jones is expected to lose to former football coach Tommy Tuberville. In that event, Democrats need about four seats to have a shot at the majority, and right now it's pretty easy to see how they could get to three. Republican senators Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona and Thom Tillis in North Carolina are all down in the polls against their Democratic opponents - all states Joe Biden is leading in as well. Getting to four seats gets a bit trickier after that, which is why Republicans are so worried about Kansas. It makes that path a lot clearer.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you said there about 10 key races. You've told us five of them. What are the others?

DAVIS: Maine, of course. Everyone always wants to talk about Maine. Susan Collins - she is one of these incumbents who has seen her fortunes turned upside down in the Trump era. She has gone from being one of the most popular senators in the country to one of the most unpopular senators. But Republicans still believe she can do what basically no other Republican senator can do this cycle, and that's run ahead of President Trump. She has run ahead of Republican presidents before. They believe she can do it again, although it's harder and harder to do because fewer people split their votes between the two parties anymore.

If it's a really bad year for Republicans, Montana and Iowa are two states to watch. They could be late-breaking. Democrats have a good candidate Montana in their Gov. Steve Bullock. Iowa voters - you know, they tend to be more swingy (ph) than we often give them credit for. Iowa can always be a surprise in national elections.

And finally, Georgia - it's a really unusual state this year because both seats are up. One is on the ballot - both are on the ballot in November, but one is a special election. And that means it's likely headed to a runoff in January, which means that this is a close election if we're looking at a potential 50/50 Senate. Control of the Senate could come down to a special election in early January.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis watching the map.

Thank you very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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