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A former Republican could win the Kansas Senate race for the Democrats

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A Democrat hasn’t won a US Senate seat in Kansas since 1932. And yet, for the first time in decades, the ruby-red state is seeing a truly competitive Senate race.

With an open seat after longtime Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced his retirement, polls between Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier and Republican Rep. Roger Marshall show a tight contest within the margin of error. This summer, political experts in the state assumed the only way Democrats could make Kansas competitive was by running against controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost to Marshall in the August primary.

But so far, Bollier’s fundraising and polling is defying every bit of conventional wisdom about Kansas politics. Bollier has out-fundraised Marshall by more than $5 million, the latest figures from OpenSecrets show.

Sen. Pat Roberts and his wife Franki Roberts attend a dedication ceremony for The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on September 17.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Most polls over the summer and fall show the candidates either tied or Marshall ahead by a point two. A recent internal GOP poll showed Marshall ahead by four points, while Bollier’s own internal poll showed her ahead by two points. In other words, there’s no clear frontrunner.

“Since the primary, polling has consistently shown at least among voters that are decided, there’s no clear leader in the race,” said Patrick Miller, political science professor at Kansas University. “Republicans are insisting very strongly that it’s not a competitive race, that it’s safe … but they’re definitely acting like it’s competitive.”

A few weeks after dumping $5.2 million into the Kansas race, Mitch McConnell-aligned Super PAC Senate Leadership Fund is adding another $7.2 million to help boost Marshall.

“It’s tight, it’s a lot tighter than anyone would have expected and anyone would have wanted,” a GOP strategist told Vox. “I think you’ve broadly seen a tightening in margins around the country. A lot of it can be attributed to Democrats having a lot of money to spend.”

Political observers in the state say after beating a polarizing conservative, Marshall himself is adopting more Kobach-like rhetoric rather than moderating his approach.

“I think his strategy is definitely more focused on the conservative part” of the electorate, Miller said. Marshall’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

Kansas Democrats have made massive strides in 2018, with the election of Gov. Laura Kelly and Rep. Sharice Davids, the first openly gay Native American member of Congress elected to the House. After years of conservative rule in Kansas politics, a Democratic resurgence is happening. Democrats are especially betting that a campaign focused on health care and Kansas Republicans’ refusal to pass Medicaid expansion will make the seat competitive — especially as neighboring red states like Missouri and Oklahoma have passed expanded Medicaid via ballot initiative.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly in 2019.
Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star via Getty Images
Rep. Sharice Davids speaks at am event in the Capitol in 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

This makes 2020 a good test of whether it can help Democrats flip what once seemed like a long-shot Senate seat. Bollier, a former moderate Republican in the state Senate who switched parties in 2018, thinks there are plenty of people in Kansas like her — people who didn’t start out as Democrats but are fed up with a state and national GOP so consumed by Trumpian conservatives.

“The majority of people aren’t on either extreme,” Bollier told Vox in a recent interview. “They’re in that center section.”

Why Kansas really could be competitive for Democrats

Let’s start with the obvious: Kansas is historically a very Republican state. It’s home to the Koch brothers, former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, and former Gov. Sam Brownback — who helmed the draconian 2012 and 2013 Kansas tax cut experiment.

Still, Kansas Republicans can’t be painted with a single brush. Kansas political experts have long observed that the state is home to three parties: Democrats, moderate Republicans, and conservative Republicans.

“The reality is, the Democrats are their party, and the Republicans are a divided party,” Bollier told Vox. As Bollier tells it, moderates and conservatives in the state are constantly at odds. Bollier eventually decided she had more in common with Democrats like Kelly, whom she endorsed in 2018 — shortly before becoming a Democrat herself.

Kansas conservatives don’t just take extreme positions on social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. They are also known for taking extreme fiscal positions, such as when Brownback drastically slashed the state’s income tax rate by 30 percent and the tax rate on pass-through income to zero. Funding for public education and state infrastructure became collateral damage, causing schools to shorten their weeks and years due to staffing shortages. The Brownback tax cuts were later overturned by the Republican state legislature as a failed experiment, but not until they blew a $900 million hole in the state budget.

Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier during a break in the Senate’s session on April 3, 2019.
John Hanna/AP

“I had tried for all these years to help move the party to a more central position, and it was failing,” Bollier told Vox recently. “Starting with the Brownback tax experiment, I remember voting no and saying ‘I sure hope I’m wrong.’ But I wasn’t.”

Kansas-based progressives say the increasingly extreme positions of the Brownback administration and conservatives in the state legislature reinvigorated the state’s decrepit Democratic Party — making it a more appealing option to people like Bollier, who were being nudged more and more to the center. At the same time, it was also nudging many everyday voters who hadn’t been active in politics to get personally involved.

“In 2014, things were bad,” said Davis Hammet, the founder of Loud Light, a Kansas-based organization focused on increasing young voter turnout. “Traditional Republicans were nearly extinct and there was talk of the state Democratic Party dissolving. There was no power structure to counteract the extreme far-right. Kansas is a story of everyone being down, then coming together.”

In the span of just four years, Kansas Democrats went from being a party considering dissolving itself to winning the governor’s race and a key House seat. Skip ahead two years and another House seat — the 2nd Congressional District — is in play in addition to the open Senate seat. As in many other states, the bluing suburbs around cities like Kansas City and Topeka are going to be critical areas for Democrats to win in order to do well.

Kansas isn’t as Trump-loyal as you might expect

Hammet and Bollier alike chalk up this year’s competitive race in part to exhaustion with reactionary politics in the state well before Trump became president.

“We had a little Trump thing going on before Trump,” said Hammet. “We watched far-right ideology destroy our state, but then changed course and started to build back up. It was at a state level, now it’s at a national level.”

Miller, the Kansas University professor, says that while Kansas reliably votes red, its demographics make it different from other more Trump-friendly conservative states, thus making it more likely its voters would stray from the president in 2020.

“The thing about Kansas is we are a more Republican than conservative state if you look at the polling,” Miller said, pointing to the state’s strong public university system producing a lot of college-educated voters. “If you look at the politics of right now, they make us a little less reliably Trump than you might expect. We are a red state but we are not monolithically red.”

As a member of Congress, Marshall has walked the line between moderate and conservative. He is a party-line Republican; at times, he’s sounded open to reforms like a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but he has also vocally supported Trump’s agenda. Ahead of the Republican Senate primary, Marshall kept a fairly low profile in Kansas politics; he certainly wasn’t known for the brash, controversial rhetoric of someone like Kobach.

“He’s the kind of Republican that, if Republican leadership has negotiated a compromise spending bill with Democrats, Marshall is going to vote for it because leadership is going to vote for it,” Miller told Vox this summer. “He’s not going to vote no on principle.”

Marshall also wasn’t initially the ideal candidate of McConnell and Senate Republican leadership, who spent months courting current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former member of Congress from the state. Pompeo ultimately did not jump into the race.

“To be clear, the Republican’s preferred candidate didn’t run,” Bollier told Vox.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier speaks during a meeting of Democratic senators in Topeka, Kansas, on February 13, 2019.
John Hanna/AP

Trump won Kansas by 21 points in 2016, but the FiveThirtyEight polling average of Kansas this year shows him just seven points ahead of Biden. Few people doubt Trump will win Kansas in 2020, but his margins will matter greatly for the Senate race. The president’s net approval rating is just four percentage points, according to Morning Consult — much lower than places like Kentucky or Alabama.

“Ever since Trump was inaugurated, Kansa is split about 50-50 in his job approval,” said Miller. “Maybe more so here than in other states, there are people that voted for him but don’t necessarily approve of the job he’s doing.”

Democrats have seized on health care as a winning issue in Kansas

Health care proved to be a winning message for Democrats in the 2018 election, including in Kansas, where they won the governor’s seat and a competitive House race. In the middle of a pandemic where millions have lost their health insurance along with their jobs, they’re betting the issue will be even more salient in 2020.

Bollier, a doctor, is a natural candidate to take a health care message to voters. Marshall, who is an OB-GYN, is focusing on abortion (he is vehemently against it). Marshall came under fire for comments he made about Medicaid expansion in 2017, seemingly suggesting that poor people who could benefit from the program “just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Bollier, on the other hand, portrays the lack of affordable health care in her state as a moral issue.

“The social, human ramifications of not having adequate health care are almost incomprehensible to me for the leaders of the world that we are supposed to be. We can and we must do better,” she said. “Let’s get something happening so people have access to that care. It is morally wrong.”

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Kansas is one of a dozen states that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. About 150,000 people living in or near poverty would be eligible for coverage if the state took that step. It’s an idea that is popular with the state’s voters; a fall 2019 survey found that 62 percent of Kansas voters support Medicaid expansion.

Conservative opposition explains the state’s failure to expand Medicaid; Brownback vetoed an expansion bill when he was governor in 2017, and before that, the Republican legislature passed a bill that blocked any governor from expanding Medicaid through their executive authority. That meant when Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s election in 2018 and entered office having promised to expand Medicaid, she wasn’t able to fulfill that promise on her own. She has been negotiating with Republican legislative leaders on an expansion plan, though their talks this year were scuttled by the Covid-19 pandemic, which ended the state legislative session early.

But despite the struggles to achieve expansion, Democrats have turned Medicaid expansion into a winning political issue, flipping the script on that Republican obstruction.

Bollier, who’s campaign promises to defend states’ abilities to expand Medicaid under the ACA, says it’s one of those issues that can win over the moderate voters who are so critical to a winning Democratic coalition in Kansas. She portrayed her old party’s intransigence as an example of the kind of politics that doesn’t work for people.

“We had the votes, they wouldn’t let it get on the floor. Is that democracy as most people envision it? I’m not thinking that’s exactly it,” she said. “It’s our call as elected officials to call out when things are not right and work toward a better and working democracy.”

The pandemic could make health care a more salient issue for voters as well, Medicaid expansion advocates in the state told Vox. The state’s unemployment is still twice as high as it was before the pandemic, and many of the people out of work likely lost health coverage.

In states that expanded Medicaid, the program’s enrollment swelled to cover people who are newly uninsured. But many people in Kansas with reduced incomes weren’t eligible for those benefits.

“This has become very real for people and very immediate,” April Holman, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, said. “This is now about making sure you and your family and neighbors have access to affordable health care.”

In a sign of how far health care politics have shifted since Obamacare first passed, Bollier has signaled an openness to a public option insurance plan. In 2010, the public option was stripped from the Democratic health care bill because moderate life-long Democrats would not get on board.

Now Bollier, the former Republican only recently turned Democrat, is willing to consider such a proposal.

“We need someone that wants to protect quality and safety while still working on reducing costs,” Bollier said. “You cannot leave the patient out of the equation. If you only are looking at cost, you’re going to hurt people.”


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Malaysia rulers to meet amid talk of emergency declaration

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Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah will meet the country’s sultans to discuss proposals put forward by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the palace said on Saturday without elaborating on their content, amid reports that Muhyiddin wants to impose a state of emergency.

Muhyiddin met the king on Friday to present a proposal that would lead to the suspension of parliament, sources told the Reuters news agency. The potential move has been widely condemned by the country’s opposition politicians and greeted with alarm by Malaysians.

The king would meet the other rulers “soon”, Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, the Comptroller of the Royal Household, said in a statement. The prime minister’s office has not commented on the proposal.

Muhyiddin has faced questions over his support in the 222-seat parliament since he was appointed prime minister in March, and pressure has grown since the opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said last week he had secured the backing required to become prime minister.

Malaysia is also battling a sudden resurgence in the outbreak of COVID-19.

The country now has more than 24,000 cases of COVID-19, more than double the number a month ago. Upwards of 700 and 800 cases a day have been reported for the past week and on Friday the country recorded 10 deaths, the highest since the pandemic began.

Malaysia has endured a sudden resurgence of COVID-19 and new restrictions were imposed earlier this month [Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

COVID-19 spike

Most have been in Sabah, where a state election took place on September 26, but the outbreak there has also helped seed clusters in the peninsula – a two-hour flight across the South China Sea – and Kuala Lumpur and Selangor – the country’s richest state – have been under a partial lockdown since October 14.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was “deeply concerned” at the reports of an emergency.

“A state of emergency is declared when there is a threat to our national security,” he said in a statement. “But when the government is itself the source of that threat then a state of emergency is nothing more than the descent into dictatorship and authoritarianism.”

On Friday, Muhyiddin’s cabinet held a special meeting that included the chief of police and head of the armed forces. He then flew to the east coast for a two-hour audience with the king. Local media reported unnamed sources within the government saying an emergency was necessary because of “political instability” and the COVID-19 outbreak.

In an open letter, seven former presidents of the Malaysian Bar Council said Malaysia’s success in tackling earlier waves of the disease showed existing laws were sufficient.

“There is no violence, or threat to the security of our nation,” they wrote, urging the government to reconsider the situation.

“If the predominant objective of the suggested declaration is to suspend parliament, and to gain emergency powers then it will obviously be an unlawful design which, if unchecked, will disenfranchise and deceive Malaysians.”

Budget vote

The next session of Malaysia’s parliament is scheduled to begin on November 2, with the government facing its first test within days when the budget is presented on November 6.

A failure to pass the spending plans could be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the government and lead to a general election.

During the last session in July, Muhyiddin, who governs in a loose alliance with a number of ethnic Malay and Islamic parties, won the vote to replace the speaker by a majority of just two.

Multi-ethnic Malaysia was last governed under an emergency in 1969, after race riots in Kuala Lumpur left scores of people, most of then ethnic Chinese, dead.

Under the order, the constitution was suspended, parliament dissolved, and the functions of government moved under a National Operations Council. A curfew restored order to the streets, but the media was muzzled and prominent opposition politicians were arrested under provisions that allowed for indefinite detention.

Parliament reconvened in February 1971, and political life resumed, but the actual emergency ordinance was not fully repealed until 2013.

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Galapagos sees record rise in penguins, flightless cormorants

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A drop in tourism and weather patterns associated with La Nina are thought to have helped the bird species in the remote archipelago.

The population of Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants, two species endemic to the remote islands, has seen a record increase, according to study results released on Friday.

The Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest species of penguins in the world, measuring up to 35 centimetres (14 inches) and the cormorants on the islands are the only type to have lost their ability to fly. They have developed diving skills instead.

“The number of cormorants has reached a record number, according to historical data dating back to 1977, while the number of penguins is at the highest since 2006,” said a statement from the Galapagos National Park, which carried out the census.

The population of Galapagos penguins, the only ones living on the earth’s equator, increased from 1,451 in 2019 to 1,940 in 2020, it added.

Flightless cormorant numbers increased from 1,914 to 2,220 over the same period.

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept tourists away from the Galapagos, helping the species that live on the archipelago recoup [File: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP]

The Galapagos Islands lie 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) off the coast of Ecuador and are home to species found nowhere else in the world.

The study was carried out by the park and the Charles Darwin Foundation in September. The main colonies present on the Isabela and Fernandina islands and the Marielas islets which are to the west of the archipelago have been classified as a natural heritage site.

Paulo Proano, Ecuador’s minister of environment and water, said the census results reflect the “good state of health of the population” of the Galapagos’ birds.

The park said the presence of the La Nina climatic phenomenon, which helps to provide more food for the birds, had contributed to the increase in their populations.

Another factor was the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced disturbances to their nesting areas because of the drop in tourism, the park added.

The islands, which served as a natural laboratory for the English scientist Charles Darwin for his theory of the evolution of species, takes their name from the giant tortoises that live there.

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US to base Coast Guard ships in western Pacific to tackle China

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The United States will deploy Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter what it described as “destabilizing and malign” activities in the region by China, the country’s top security adviser said on Friday.

The US Coast Guard was “strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific,” White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

Describing the US as a Pacific power, the statement added that China’s “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability”.

It said US efforts, including by the Coast Guard, were “critical to countering these destabilizing and malign actions.”

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement, which came just ahead of a planned visit to Asia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pose prior to their bilateral meeting in Tokyo on October 6, 2020 ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. – (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo led a meeting of the so-called Quad in Tokyo this month. Washington hopes the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia can act as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness and extensive maritime claims in the region, including to nearly all of the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Pompeo will begin a five-day tour of India – where he will be accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper – and then he will continue on to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Maritime security and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will be high on the agenda, the State Department said.

Incursions

In July, Esper condemned a “catalogue of bad behaviour” in the South China Sea over the previous months, accusing the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

O’Brien added that the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was also studying whether to permanently station several of its patrol ships in the area of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Last month, Indonesia protested after Chinese coastguard ships travelled into its exclusive economic zone, which is situated between its own territorial waters and international waters and where the state claims exclusive rights to develop natural resources.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines also claim the parts of the sea nearest to their shores.

The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed sea – angering China, which has developed military outposts on islands and islets.

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