Forty-six years ago, at the 1974 Kansas state fair U.S. Senate debate, Bob Dole altered the path of politics for both state and nation.
Down in the polls to Democratic Representative Bill Roy, Dole had struggled through the debate, nominally focused on agriculture. He faced the real possibility of losing his seat.
Flailing, Dole concluded by attacking Roy, a gynecologist, with this question: “I want to know how many abortions you’ve done, and where you stand on abortion?” Bill Roy subsequently recounted, “Ninety percent of that arena booed, whistled… [and] thought it was a terribly mean, ugly and wrong thing… But he’s playing to a very small audience…who would vote on the abortion issue only.”
In the wake of the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Bob Dole became, in a desperate moment, the first national politician to open the Pandora’s box of abortion politics.
The consensus explanation of Dole’s 1974 victory emphasizes (1) his campaign shake-up in September that led to a set of effective, hard-hitting television advertisements and (2) the senator’s strong performance in several heavily Catholic, traditionally Democratic communities.
Dole prevailed by 13,000 votes, by far the slimmest margin of his career and the closest Senate race since the 1930s. He never seriously revisited abortion as a core policy concern. Rather, as a fierce competitor, Dole reached out for an issue to use for his immediate advantage. He was ultimately rewarded with 22 more years in the Senate, 15 years in top leadership roles, and a run at the presidency in 1996.
Abortion issues became central to American politics in the 1980s and 1990s, but Dole largely ignored the issue; it had served its purpose.
Fast forward to Kansas, 2020, with abortion surfacing as a highly visible issue in the Senate race between two physicians, one an obstetrician/gynecologist. That candidate, First District Representative Roger Marshall, has adopted a radical anti-abortion position that permits no exceptions.
His opponent, state senator Dr. Barbara Bollier, an anesthesiologist, has compiled a steady pro-choice record over her medical and political career.
Unlike 1974, when abortion represented a new, uncertain subject, it has become a well-developed issue, to the point of calcification. Overall, most Kansans (and Americans) want abortion to remain legal, albeit with various restrictions. There are virtually no undecideds, and nationally just nine percent favor a “no exceptions” policy.
Remarkably, Marshall has painted Bollier on this and other issues as an “extremist,” wrongly accusing her, for example, of endorsing late-term abortions and supporting the Green New Deal.
In truth, Roger Marshall is the extremist. His hardline, no-exceptions anti-abortion policy locates him far outside the mainstream. Likewise, his opposition to Medicaid expansion, his cavalier attitude toward wearing masks, and his total support for Donald Trump’s anti-scientific pandemic pronouncements place him well beyond the s views of most Kansans.
Marshall even followed Trump’s lead in taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off the coronavirus, a risky, unscientific, and highly problematic act that Bollier immediately opposed.
In 1974, Bob Dole desperately grabbed the abortion issue; it was the cynical, but understandable, act of a career politician who saw his career in danger.
Conversely, as an ideologue, Roger Marshall has adopted far-right positions on abortion, health care, and other issues. In short, these politically questionable positions make him the radical in the 2020 U.S. Senate race.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.