This story is the first installment of “Could She Flip It?”, a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.
GREAT BEND, Kan. — The first honk comes just after someone asks a question about wind power. One pickup truck pulls into the parking lot, then another — until eight floats flying Trump flags have joined the parade. Men in “Make America Great Again” hats slam their fists against their horns. When a police officer tells them to lay off, they begin shouting from rolled-down windows.
“Honk. Honk, honk, honk, honk.”
The caravan has convened with a clear goal: If Kansas Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier wants to bring her message to Great Bend — the rural hometown of her opponent, where President Trump won with 77 percent of the vote — then she is going to have to yell.
Instead, Bollier smiles, rising onto her toes in her orthopedic sandals to edge a little closer to the microphone.
“Let’s wave at them, guys,” she says to the crowd of 120 people who have gathered to hear her speak on a Saturday afternoon in September. Bollier waves like she is greeting a friend.
“Wouldn’t it have been nicer if they had come in and visited?” she asks. “Because we have a lot to talk about.”
A Democrat has not won a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas since 1932. The state is overwhelmingly Republican, considered an easy win for President Trump in November. And yet, polls show Bollier and her opponent, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), in a single-digit race. A moderate Republican who became a Democrat in 2018 — and is backed by almost 100 current and former Republican state legislators — Bollier is casting herself as a “sensible centrist” who couldn’t stomach an increasingly ideological Republican Party. Her campaign is a testing ground for true moderate politics: In a state where Trump reigns, how many Republicans would prefer to return to the middle of the road, even if that means voting for a Democrat?
Bollier is a 62-year-old doctor and mother of two, with a wispy bob she coaxes into place with a thin plastic comb she keeps tucked in her purse. She dresses “sensibly” in cotton T-shirts and button-up cardigans from Talbots and L.L. Bean, wearing the same necklace every day: a diamond the size of a pinprick, strung through a simple gold chain.
She calls herself an “eternal optimist,” who often says she likes to “catch people being good.” She says she believes in an ideal many Americans have long abandoned: If you put any two people in a room — a MAGA honker and a lifelong Democrat — and make them talk for long enough, they will be able to find some common ground.
Bollier is employing the same strategy that delivered the Kansas governor’s mansion to Democrat Laura Kelly in 2018. She hands out signs that say “Republicans for Barbara Bollier.” Her most circulated television ads feature Republican legislators in cowboy hats, who say they plan to vote against their party for the very first time. One Republican assures viewers: “It’s okay to vote for a Democrat.”
Abortion has become the central issue of Marshall’s campaign: He is antiabortion, while Bollier has always supported abortion rights. At campaign events, voters frequently ask about the attack ads that Marshall is running against Bollier, calling her a “heartless” extremist who supports late-term abortion. Mailers juxtapose Bollier’s face with a picture of a fetus.
“It’s effective,” said Joyce Warshaw, the Republican mayor of Dodge City, Kan. “People here will just tell you that the abortion issue is their focus. Anyone who will do away with abortion will get their vote.”
The audience in Great Bend has not been swayed by Marshall’s ads. When Bollier is done speaking, they leap from their seats, chanting her name. These are the Democrats and moderate Republicans who, for years, have not felt like they could speak up, says Kathy Davis, a Democrat from Great Bend — because they never thought they had a real shot.
“It draws a stark contrast,” said Dan Heath, another Great Bend Democrat. “You had somebody talking about how we need to work together, regardless of how disparate our ideas are, being drowned out by someone yelling, ‘honk honk.’”
Davis was glad to see so many Trump supporters today, she said: It bodes well for Bollier.
“They think we can win.”
The political parties break down a little differently in Kansas. There are three major parties here, legislators tend to agree: the Republicans, the Democrats and the “mods.” As the tea party has strengthened across the state since the early 2010s, moderate Republicans have distanced themselves from their Trump-backing brethren, regularly siding with the Democrats.
“Moderate Republicans like this don’t really exist in other states in the same way,” said Linda Gallagher, a former state representative who identifies as a “mod.” “We’re just trying to plod through the middle, which I think is the way most people are.”
Bollier, a state senator, comes from a long line of moderate Republican women in Kansas: suburban professionals, many of whom, like Bollier, rose up through the ranks of Parent Teacher Associations. From 1978 to 1997, the seat Bollier is seeking was held by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican who supports abortion rights — who Bollier regularly refers to as her role model. Another Republican who supports abortion rights, Shelia Frahm, served in the U.S. Senate in the ’90s.
In the state legislature, conservative Republicans have been systematically working to unseat their moderate colleagues. But not all moderates are targeted equally, said Stephanie Clayton, a Democratic state representative who switched parties soon after Bollier.
“There was something about women like me and Barbara,” she said. “I think it’s some sort of deep tribal thing: You’re not doing what you’re told. You’re not fulfilling your gender role.”
As a Republican in the state legislature, Bollier would often split with her party on key votes, especially on women’s reproductive health. The only doctor in the state Senate, Bollier was uniquely capable of aggravating conservatives, Clayton said, able to back up her positions with a level of authority no one else could claim. The conservative Republicans would heckle her when she stood up to speak, rolling their eyes whenever she referenced her experience as a physician. One Republican referred to Bollier as “Josef Mengele,” the Nazi doctor who performed lethal experiments on Jews.
When Bollier endorsed Kelly for governor a few weeks before the 2018 election, the Republicans took her off the health committee. She found out on Twitter.
For the first few months of her Senate campaign, Bollier said, she struggled to invoke her credentials as a physician, remembering how her Republican colleagues had mocked her expertise.
“It took me months to be able to say, without hesitation, ‘And as a physician, I feel …’”
The intensity of the Republican reaction was a testament to the sway Bollier holds in the legislature, Clayton said.
“She made them angry just by existing.”
When the politics got ugly, Bollier would turn to “Intentionally Being Women Together” — “IBWT” for short. Thirty years ago, she and five women from her Presbyterian church decided to start having explicit conversations about their lives and what they wanted out of them. They met weekly, now monthly. Once a year, they leave their kids and partners behind to smell the bluebonnets in Texas or fly down an alpine slide in Colorado. There is always time for the big questions: What was most meaningful in your life this year? How did you struggle?
IBWT isn’t a Bible study or a book club, said Kathy Burdette, Bollier’s longtime friend. They wanted nothing to do with their church “women’s circle,” she said, where members met to swap recipes. There would be no premeeting house cleanings for IBWT, they agreed — no Martha Stewart-style canapés.
“We are about being women, together and intentionally,” Bollier said. “I mean, that’s how we got the name.”
When Bollier announced to the group that she was switching parties, IBWT was in full agreement, Burdette said.
“It was time.”
After Trump was elected, Bollier had expected at least some conservatives to break from the president, making it clear they identified as a different kind of Republican. She couldn’t believe how few were willing to speak out against his policies. The “last straw,” she said, was when the Kansas Republican Party formally came out against transgender people, asserting as part of its official platform that God only created “male” and “female.”
“I kept saying, ‘Why isn’t anyone standing up?’ So finally I said, ‘I can stand up. I will lead.’”
When Bollier announced her switch, she set off a chain reaction. Clayton announced that she was joining the Democratic Party a few days later, along with another female Kansas Republican. A few months after that, Iowa’s longest-serving Republican legislator did the same thing.
“We didn’t coordinate that,” Bollier said. “We hadn’t even discussed it.”
“Kansas moderate women have pretty tough hides on us,” Clayton said.
Maybe people cared that they took a stand, she said, because no national Republican was brave enough to do the same.
When Bollier pulls up to her event in northeast Wichita, people are dancing. There is hip-hop music blaring from light-up speakers, pulsing red and purple. The crowd sits in lawn chairs outside the Dunbar, a historic movie theater at the heart of Wichita’s largest Black neighborhood. A wall mural behind the makeshift stage pays tribute to some of the greats: Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday.
There are 20 Black people in the crowd of 70, far more than there’s been at any other event this weekend. Less than six percent of the state is Black. Much of that population is concentrated in Wichita.
Mary Dean and Karen Wright, Black women and longtime friends, have come here tonight because they are skeptical.
“She was a Republican at one time, and now she’s jumped ship over to the Democrats,” said Wright, a lifelong Democrat. “But that doesn’t mean that she has my vote.”
When Bollier opens the floor for questions, Dean raises her hand right away. She asks Bollier to commit to hiring a Black woman on her staff if she is elected.
“Oh, I’m committed to having any kind of person, as long as they’re ready to get to work and do the hard work for Kansans,” Bollier says. “If I have good Black people there, of course I will hire them.”
Bollier tries to move on, but Dean — now without a microphone — starts shouting.
“Please be specific, be specific. Don’t filibuster.”
Bollier talks over Dean and, now, Wright, who are both urging her to answer the question directly.
“I appreciate your opinion, ma’am,” Bollier finally stops to say. “I will bring on as many people as I can.”
Whenever Bollier is asked about Black Lives Matter, she lifts her hand. “As a White woman,” she says, “I will raise my hand and admit that I have not done enough to listen to my Black brothers and sisters.” Something needs to be done, she says, because “Black lives do matter.”
But to Dean and Wright, her proposed solutions seem “evasive.” Bollier supports peaceful protests, she says — but “of course,” she adds, “none of us support violence.” When she’s asked for her position on police funding at an event the next day, she laughs.
“Defund the police,” she says to the almost exclusively White crowd, gathered beside a glistening lake in a well-manicured subdivision. “What a myth.”
Bollier is “dancing on a fine line,” Dean says: Trying to win over Republicans, while maintaining the support of Democrats, especially the state’s Black voters. Dean can guess at why Bollier didn’t answer her question with a firm commitment. If she had promised to hire a Black woman, Dean said sadly, that might have cost her Republican votes.
Marshall has tried to go after Bollier on protests and police funding, running commercials that claim she would “devastate law enforcement” and “jeopardize our safety.” But that’s been a tough argument to make, Clayton says, because Bollier holds such moderate positions on those issues.
It’s much easier to go after her on abortion.
“That’s red meat, man,” Clayton said. “They can’t get her on anything else.”
Even as a Republican, Bollier never wavered on abortion: Planned Parenthood was the first organization that Bollier and her husband donated to as a married couple. Abortion should be a private decision between a woman and her doctor, Bollier has always said. Even in the late stages of a pregnancy, if a woman finds out that her baby has a fatal condition, Bollier says, she should have the option to terminate.
If Bollier loses this election, it will be because of her position on abortion, several current and former state legislators said. It has always been a key issue in Kansas, the home state of Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group famous for murdering abortion providers and blowing up clinics. The last time a Democrat was in a tight race for a U.S. Senate seat here, in 1974, he lost after his opponent began attacking him on abortion.
At the state capitol, Bollier’s Republican colleagues will often invoke their faith on issues like abortion and gay rights. Faith is important to Bollier, too — she’s gone to church her entire life.
Bollier is not the type to accept religious teachings without question, Burdette said. In the state legislature, where Bollier has served since 2010, a chaplain will often open sessions with a prayer. The chaplain would always address “father God,” Bollier said. Years ago, she asked if they would sometimes pray to the “mother.”
When the chaplain refused — slack-jawed at the question — Bollier suggested another term: “creator.”
It wasn’t quite the female religious empowerment that Bollier had been hoping for. But it didn’t entirely leave women out, either.
The compromise has endured, Bollier said: The Kansas state Senate will still pray to the creator.
No one can remember the last time that a Democrat running for U.S. Senate came to Great Bend. One hundred miles to the east, in rural Butler county, sixth-generation poultry farmer Ryon Carey says the same thing.
“Democrats haven’t won a seat here since 1932 because they really haven’t tried.”
When Bollier steps out of her car — clutching the rim of her periwinkle hat to save it from the swirling prairie wind — local farmers are lined up to talk to her. They want to tell her about the importance of funding local hospitals — and how they actually think the Green New Deal could be a good idea.
When Trump claims to be helping farmers, they say, he is talking about industrial farmers: The vast majority of rural Kansans are eager for some kind of change. But the only station you can get on your tractor plays staunchly conservative “farm talk radio.” If farmers out here really understood their options, they say, maybe she could turn Trump country blue.
Bollier sits on a hay bale, farm cat on her lap, and listens.