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The Vox Senate interview: Barbara Bollier is making the Kansas Senate race competitive for Democrats

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The open Kansas Senate race was never supposed to be competitive for Democrats. But given what an unusual year 2020 is shaping up to be, it’s a dead heat.

The two candidates in contention are Democrat Barbara Bollier, a state senator and former doctor, and Republican Rep. Roger Marshall, who is also a doctor and OBGYN. Bollier has only been a Democrat for a few years; she was a longtime moderate Republican in the state before switching parties in 2018.

“Over time, as a person identifying as a moderate Republican, I found myself constantly at odds with our Republican leadership in Kansas,” Bollier told Vox in a recent interview. When Bollier’s former state Senate colleague Laura Kelly, a Democrat, won the governor’s race in 2018 — Bollier said her decision was sealed.

“Once that happened, for me it just became clear — I needed to move on,” she said. “I had tried for all these years to help move the [Republican] party to a more central position, and it was failing.”

The 2020 election is a good test of whether moderates or conservatives will prevail in Kansas, a deeply red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the US Senate in close to 90 years. Kansas may be Republican, but political observers in the state say it’s pretty evenly split between moderate and conservative Republicans. With a good public higher education system, Kansas has a relatively high number of college-educated voters in its suburbs. President Donald Trump’s approval rating isn’t as high there as it is in Rust Belt states like Kentucky and West Virginia.

“I think a lot of people underestimate it when really so much of the story of what’s going in Kansas is a state that is rapidly shifting away from the Republican party, or at least from Donald Trump’s version of it,” said a senior Democratic strategist.

This race will still be very tough for Bollier to pull off. Vox recently interviewed Bollier about how she’s planning to do so (hint: health care has a lot to do with it), why she switched parties, and what she thinks is the future of moderate Republicans under Trump.

Ella Nilsen

In 2018, Democrats won a key Kansas House race, Laura Kelly won the governor’s race. What do you think accounts for this increased Democratic energy in a traditionally conservative state like Kansas?

Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier

I think people interpreted that because many Republicans have been elected over time, that it’s a red state. The reality is, the Democrats are their party, and the Republicans are a divided party — they have conservatives and moderates. If you take the moderate wing of the Republicans and add it to the Democratic set of voters, you get a majority.

That’s different than what it appears like on paper when you just look at ‘red.’ The majority of the state is registered Republican, but they represent a different value system; they look at things differently. That’s been a challenge for the Republican Party and continues to. When you have seen people like me, who realized that the values of the Kansans they represent just weren’t being followed. From the Brownback tax experiment, to not funding our schools, to taking away local control, to not expanding Medicaid. That doesn’t fit in with the majority of Kansans’ values. So the moderates, they’re starting to leave the party. They aren’t able to function in that realm.

Ella Nilsen

When you decided to switch parties, can you talk us through your decision-making? I’m curious how much it had to do with what what was happening at the national level with Trump, versus what was happening in Kansas.

Barbara Bollier

All those factors combined. Over time, as a person identifying as a moderate Republican, I found myself constantly at odds with our Republican leadership in Kansas. Starting with the Brownback tax experiment, I remember voting no and saying ‘I sure hope I’m wrong … I’m happy to be wrong on this,’ but I wasn’t.

[Starting in 2012, Brownback drastically slashed the state’s income tax rate by 30 percent, and the tax rate on pass-through income to zero. 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, cutting funding for public schools and state infrastructure in the process.]

We’re still climbing out of that, but also things like when the Republicans were refusing to fund our schools constitutionally, and then went to a block grant system. Especially things like local control, and fiscal responsibility — when you’re having to borrow money to pay your bills, that isn’t Republican values. So at some point, you realize it just isn’t working anymore.

I didn’t change parties at the time, but I endorsed Laura Kelly across party lines. People weren’t standing up in this country saying it’s not just about the party, it’s about good representation. Kansans obviously agreed with me and voted Laura Kelly into office. Once that happened, for me it just became clear — I needed to move on.

Nitrogen explosion rattles Beechcraft aircraft plant in Kansas.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) prepares to give a speech on December 27, 2019.
Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I had tried for all these years to help move the party to a more central position, and it was failing. At some point you have to recognize you can function and represent the people better, where you’re welcomed and can do your job, can stay on committees — as a doctor on the health committee, etc. Those are important things for the people of Kansas.

Ella Nilsen

Senate Republicans are moving to confirm [Judge Amy Coney Barrett] to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some progressives in the Senate have floated ideas like adding more seats to the Supreme Court if Democrats are in the majority — to balance out the court’s ideological configuration. Would you support that if Republicans barrel ahead with this confirmation process?

Barbara Bollier

Well, they’re going to do that.

Right now, I don’t have any interest in changing the number of Supreme Court justices. That’s just not on my plate right now.

The Supreme Court is one of our three branches of government — one of the most important institutions that we have — and we shouldn’t politicize it. It should not be politicized. And it’s been disappointing to see this rampage through, for something that’s going to last a lifetime for a person. Careful thought is important. We deserve that.

Dylan Scott

The court-packing issue seems to be a symptom of a larger problem that Democrats are starting to diagnose, which is maybe some of our democratic institutions are not as democratic as we thought they would be. Donald Trump is the president not because he won the most votes, but because he won the Electoral College, which gives disproportionate influence to smaller, more rural, whiter states.

Are you receptive to any ideas, whether that’s statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, some kind of gerrymandering legislation?

Barbara Bollier

Well, Dylan you’ve hit a lot of topics there. I think this is a really important conversation, in that to be a great nation, you need to continue to evaluate yourself, and see how you can do better. Just because you started in a certain place, you should always be evaluating, again and again to say, is this the best that we can do? What do we need to do to be better at it? I learned that as a physician, you don’t just sit back and go, ‘Okay, I’m prescribing this, and then we’re not ever going to talk again.’ You keep evaluating and adjusting as needed.

It’s the same thing with our country, what is working? And in the time that you’re living, what is the right thing? Yeah, it should come to the table, should DC be a state or not? Whether they’re a state, should those people have the right to vote for a senator and a representative? I have a son that’s in DC right now at George Washington Law School who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, specifically so that he can vote. Because why would he want to give up that right as a US citizen? He wasn’t willing to do that and live in DC, even though it’d be closer. That’s a perfect example.

What is most important about us, Dylan, as a country and democracy, is our willingness to work together. I just came off of working in a state Senate, that the leadership completely blocked what 80 percent of Kansas wanted. 80 percent [wanted] Medicaid expansion. 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. It’s our call as elected officials to call out when things are not right, and work toward a better and working democracy. We do that by being willing to work together and not calling names and denigrating the other side. We’re all Americans, and we need to display that.

Kansas Capitol Building
Lobbyists and Kansas state legislators meet with one another outside the house chambers prior to the Kansas legislative session being called to order.
Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Ella Nilsen

You once said the Republican Party was “hell bent” on removing moderates. What do you see as the future of the Republican Party under Trump? Where do disaffected moderate Republicans like yourself go? You clearly joined the Democratic Party, but do other moderates create a third independent party?

Barbara Bollier

All right, so, “hell bent?” This is the first election I’ve ever been in, that a party is actually standing with me. The Kansas Chamber [of Commerce] puts out a voter freedom index. One year I voted with them, like 88-90 percent of the time. And I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ And they go, ‘We’ll change the criteria and include last year, so that you can’t qualify.’ It didn’t matter if you even were with them. They didn’t want the opportunity as a moderate for anyone to possibly be represented. So that’s hell bent.

Quite honestly, a third party — every single state in this nation has rules in their state legislatures that are built around a two-party system. Those two parties have no interest in ceding any of their potential power to another party. You don’t have a path, certainly at any state level to have a third party. They can’t [serve] on a committee. There’s no place.

So our country isn’t going to have a third party. There’s no way. I kept hearing the “big tent” idea on the Republican side? No, the big tent’s on the Democratic side. As you know, who is nominated by the Democratic side, it wasn’t the extreme. It was the more centralized candidate. That’s a message to the people. The Democratic Party doesn’t want to go, some people do but not the majority. The majority of people aren’t on either extreme. They’re in that center section.

Dylan Scott

A couple of questions on Medicaid expansion, if you will. Why has Kansas not expanded Medicaid today? Is it largely intractable Republican opposition to Obamacare just on principle?

Barbara Bollier

That’s all there is to say about it. It’s exactly the truth.

Dylan Scott

As you are now running to join the US Senate, what do you see as your role in advocating for Medicaid expansion as a US senator? That is a decision in Kansas, especially without a ballot referendum option, that’s entirely up to the legislature and the government.

Barbara Bollier

That’s not quite true. Why do we have Medicaid expansion? The Affordable Care Act, very clear. My opponent has voted repeatedly to end the Affordable Care Act; that means ending Medicaid expansion. I haven’t seen a single plan to include those millions of people who are now being able to have preventive care.

As a US senator, I very much will be standing up to keep Medicaid expansion as an option for people with the vast majority of states not only expanding, but making no move whatsoever to end that expansion. Because it’s working.

Dylan Scott

Joe Biden has proposed an interesting fix for the Medicaid expansion gap, which would be automatically enrolling those folks into a new public health insurance option. I know you said in our questionnaire that you would support a public health insurance option, but I wanted to ask specifically about that provision. Do you see that as a potential alternative route to getting coverage to those folks?

Barbara Bollier

I will have to read about it, I honestly have not. To be clear, I’m always open to options. One of the key things to think about when you’re looking at change is infrastructure. I mean, it’s not just about the health care, it’s about the whole process of enrolling people. That’s what bogs systems down, and I would need to see the impact of that and making this massive uprooting change. I don’t know, I would have to look into that.

Dylan Scott

What would you say is your level of confidence in the public health information that we’re getting out of the Trump administration right now?

Barbara Bollier

Directly from Trump himself, it’s been disappointing at best. It’s actually been misleading at times even. That concerns me because I think leaders should lead on public health. The CDC — as long as they’re following science — but you you hear and read that maybe they’re being influenced. I’m looking at data myself, you can follow data very clearly and look to things that are published in medical journals. This is new, and we’re learning.

I’ll be very clear. It’s been very disappointing to see, one of the simplest things we could do that science has showed us is wear a mask. And that’s become politicized.

It’s about public health. As a physician in the operating room, maybe I didn’t want to wear a mask every day, but by gosh, I did. Because it’s what you do to protect others.

Dylan Scott

In the same vein, there’s been reporting and certainly speculation about the potential for political interference in approving a Covid-19 vaccine. Given your background, how confident are you that the vaccine approval process will be governed entirely by science?

Barbara Bollier

If the FDA approves this vaccine, it should be readily available then to frontline workers, people like teachers included so they can be safe to go about and get our economy and our world back on track. So I look forward to that day, and I will trust the FDA.

Ella Nilsen

In your practice, as a doctor in Kansas, how have you seen lack of affordable health care impacting your patients?

Barbara Bollier

To speak directly from my practice, we did a tremendous number of pediatric dental cases that needed anesthetics. Those kids, so many of them just had completely rotted out teeth. Part of that was because they didn’t have access to the right foods to eat and not understanding necessarily when they needed to be at the dentist, or not even having access. They weren’t necessarily as healthy because of issues of poverty, that was very clear at that time.

Doctor shortage
An endocrinologist sees patients in Wichita, Kansas.
Mike Hutmacher/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Let’s move to now as a legislator and a physician. Knowing people calling me, begging for help when they get diagnosed with cancer. Women that have no option — it’s horrifying. They’ve had to wait so long, they don’t have the preventive testing that we all expect as part of our insurance. They don’t have access to that. [Paying for preventive testing] versus feeding your kids, I can tell you — you feed your kids. And then ending up with a cancer that’s way too advanced to really do anything.

We all lose from that. 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. It is morally wrong.

Ella Nilsen

During the Republican primary, a lot of political pundits inside Kansas and nationally were saying the only chance Democrats had to actually win this seat is if Kris Kobach is the Republican nominee. Obviously, he is not the Republican nominee. But Republicans have recently put $5.2 million into ads in Kansas. How can you still make this race competitive and win against Republicans’ preferred candidate in this race?

Barbara Bollier

To be clear, the Republican’s preferred candidate [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] didn’t run.

The reason I’m in this race is because I knew based on the field that was present, that I was a better candidate than any of them, I was willing to work in a bipartisan manner and wanted to actually move health care forward — which is the number one issue for people in the state. I always knew it didn’t matter who I ran against, because what was being offered from this campaign was so different than what any Republicans seem to be offering to the people.

Ultimately, when you look at these large corporate PACs coming in to save my opponent, we have such tremendous grassroots support, financially, let alone the volunteers. People from all 105 counties have donated to this campaign. We’ve raised record amounts because the people of Kansas are really speaking up and saying, we want something different. Yeah, it’s been since 1932. And it’s time for change.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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