Democratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary
An outside group linked to several Democratic groups is spending money on television ads in Kansas, promoting an arch-conservative backer of President Trump over a candidate favored by national Republicans in a critical Senate primary.
The advertisement, paid for by a newly created political action committee called Sunflower State, is ostensibly an attack ad against both former Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) and Rep. Roger Marshall (R).
But the ad, appearing just three weeks before the primary, may as well be a positive spot on Kobach’s behalf.
“Kris Kobach, he’s too conservative. Kobach won’t compromise on building a wall or getting tough on China,” the ad says. “And Roger Marshall’s a phony. After backing a Mitt Romney-like candidate for president, he’s been soft on Trump and weak on immigration. Marshall’s been both for and against the wall. He went easy on China, but now talks tough. Roger Marshall: Fake, fake, fake.”
The ad is reminiscent of a spot run by former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in 2012, when just weeks before the GOP primary her campaign paid for three ads attacking her three main rivals. The campaign put the lion’s share of their money behind one attacking then-Rep. Todd Akin (R) as “too conservative,” a spot that helped vault Akin over two more moderate Republicans.
Akin, another arch-conservative, lost to McCaskill by a 15-point margin in November.
Now Democrats appear to be choosing their opponent in Kansas, where Kobach and Marshall are the leading contenders in a field of 11 Republicans hoping to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R).
Kobach, the architect of much of Trump’s anti-immigration platform, lost his bid for governor in 2018, a rare blemish for Republicans in a state Trump carried by 20 points two years earlier. He has endorsements from conservative groups like the Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights and the National Border Patrol Council.
Marshall, who has represented a sprawling rural district that covers most of Western Kansas since ousting conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) in 2016, has been backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932, the longest streak of continuous Republican control in the country.
But this year, Democrats sense an opportunity — especially if the polarizing Kobach is the nominee. The party recruited state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D), a former Republican who pulled in $3.7 million in the second quarter of the year.
Sunflower State filed its paperwork with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Monday afternoon, and by Tuesday the group was airing the new spots.
It is not clear who is funding the group, though it has extensive ties to Democratic firms.
The group listed Amalgamated Bank, a New York-based bank that also does business with the Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association, as its financial institution. Owned by an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, Amalgamated Bank bills itself as “America’s socially responsible bank.”
The advertisement Sunflower State is running was placed by Old Town Media LLC, a firm based in Alexandria, Va., that has placed advertisements for Unite the Country, a pro-Joe Biden super PAC.
Another firm, Old Towne Media LLC, also based in Alexandria, acted as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) chief media buyer during the 2016 presidential campaign. The firm placed ads for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that year as well.
It is not clear whether the two firms are linked. They list different addresses in Alexandria. Old Towne does not appear in FEC reports since the 2016 election cycle. A representative of Old Towne Media confirmed to Slate that year that two partners of the firm also work for Canal Partners Media, one of the Democratic Party’s largest ad-buying firms.
Sunflower State lists a Lawrence, Kan.-based lawyer Jim Jesse as its treasurer and custodian of records. The phone number filed with the FEC goes straight to voice mail.
Reached through a phone number linked on his website Wednesday morning, Jesse initially said he did not know anything about Sunflower State. He then said he had no comment, before hanging up on a reporter.
“Sunflower State is focused on educating voters about the U.S. Senate race in Kansas and is operating in accordance with all Federal Election Laws,” the group said in an unsigned email Wednesday sent from the Gmail address it lists on its FEC form.
A spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC did not immediately return an email or a phone call seeking comment.
It is uncommon, but not unheard of, for a party to play favorites in the other side’s primary. Earlier this year, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), the top Republican outside group run by a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), spent $3 million on a television spot boosting North Carolina state Sen. Erica Smith (D), a progressive who was running against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Those advertisements were funneled through another outside group that initially obscured SLF’s involvement, until the groups had to file regular disclosures to the FEC.
National Democrats preferred former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), who ended up winning the primary by a 22-point margin, but not before he had to spend his own money on advertisements introducing himself to voters.
Updated at 11:58 a.m.
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