LAWRENCE — The change in the country’s political landscape that took place last Friday with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was visible thousands of miles away.
Amid the lush gardens and the band gazebo, as dozens of supporters of state Sen. Barbara Bollier, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, mingled from a social distance, Ginsburg’s death was a chief topic of conversation.
For Colleen Janssen, the moment wasn’t just on her mind — it was on her mask, as well.
The black face coverings with lace trim had the letters RBG embossed, a reference to the justice’s nickname in the vein of hip hop megastar The Notorious B.I.G.
Janssen had even mailed a few of the masks, which she made herself, to Ginsburg at the beginning of the pandemic, with Ginsburg’s office replying that they were the most stylish in the 87-year-old’s collection.
Left-leaning voters like Janssen appear to have been motivated by Ginsburg’s death and the resulting vacancy on the Supreme Court that it brings, donating to races like Bollier’s in record numbers.
"I’m glad to see her passing made more people committed," Janssen said. "Especially for women’s rights."
But some argue that Bollier’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, could be the beneficiary of a campaign that will potentially focus more on the judiciary — long a factor that motivated conservative voters to the polls.
An increased conversation over many social issues, most notably abortion, could then play into Marshall’s hand.
And David Kensinger, a veteran GOP political consultant, said that the judiciary debate would have ramifications beyond just filling a single Supreme Court seat.
"You’ll probably have a vote one way or the other on the Ginsburg vacancy prior to the next senator from Kansas being sworn in" Kensinger said. "But over the course of a six-year term there is going to be hundreds of nominations for circuit and district court judgeships that a senator is going to vote on."
The Kansas race is different than other competitive Senate battles across the country.
In Colorado, Maine and elsewhere, there is an incumbent candidate who will likely be forced to vote on whomever Trump elects to nominate for the vacancy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that such a vote will happen before the election, over the objection of Democrats who believe the next president should make the appointment.
Because Marshall and Bollier are vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the potential impact of the debate in Washington will likely be subtler, if there are any at all.
Most people have entrenched positions on the matter, noted Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Kansas.
"That breaks down so much by party that I’m not sure it makes much difference," he said.
Marshall has backed McConnell’s move to have a vote quickly, a viewpoint also shared by fellow Republicans, such as Roberts and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran.
"This is an important time in history and one we can’t get wrong, that’s why the stakes for this election are so high," he said during the first Senate debate last week.
Bollier has followed the line of Democrats in the Senate, urging the chamber to eschew a Supreme Court vote in favor of other items, like tackling a COVID-19 relief package.
At her Lawrence event, Bollier noted the gravity of the moment and what effects it could have on the Affordable Care Act, with the Supreme Court set to hear another challenge to the landmark health care law in November.
Filling Ginsburg’s seat with a conservative who would support repealing the ACA could threaten the health care of millions, she argued.
It also would be the nail in the coffin for hopes of expanding Medicaid in Kansas, with states forced to bear the entire financial burden of such a move.
"Yes, (voters) care about Justice Ginsburg and our constitutional right to have autonomy over our bodies," Bollier said in an interview. "But what’s even more at risk is the Affordable Care Act, the ability to have protected pre-existing conditions."
But the vacancy has brought another issue to the forefront, as well, one that could favor Marshall: abortion.
One of the core issues during the nomination process will almost certainly be whether the justice Trump chooses will support overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark case laying out abortion rights nationally.
Marshall specifically stated in the debate that appointing an anti-abortion justice was one of the factors that should motivate a vote before the election, and many GOP senators have voiced similar feelings.
Loomis said the fact that overturning Roe is "in sight" given the vacancy, which could give voters on the right more motivation.
Still, he said, given Bollier’s strength with suburban women, who are more likely to be pro-choice, she could mitigate that.
"I think you can see some enthusiasm on both sides here, in terms of one candidate or the other," he said.
Still, Marshall said earlier this week that he supported overturning Roe v. Wade and Trump has indicated that whichever justice he nominates to replace Ginsburg will mirror that position.
"I think abortion is wrong at every stage and reversing Roe v. Wade would be a great step towards saving millions of babies' lives," Marshall told KMBC News.
Some have compared the present moment to 1974, when then-Sen. Bob Dole was locked in a tight battle with challenger William R. Roy.
Roy, a two-term congressman and doctor, was closing in on Dole when the incumbent Republican wielded Roy’s record on abortion against him, with the wedge issue helping him to a narrow victory.
And Marshall has been aggressive in promoting the issue in his advertisements and in Saturday’s debate, hitting Bollier for a 2011 vote against a bill that placed restrictions on late-term abortions.
Bollier said at the time that her vote in opposition to the measure was due to requirements that the mother carry the baby to term, even in such a case as the baby having anencephaly, which often leads to stillbirths or deaths shortly after the child is born.
"I vote ’no’ on HB 2218 firm in my belief that the government does not belong in this heart wrenching physician-patient relationship," Bollier stated in the House journal at the time.
Bollier’s ads and her speeches at events like the one in Lawrence have focused on other issues, such as education, in a bid to play up her moderate bona fides.
She dismissed the notion that abortion was chief among the concerns in the mind of Kansas voters, saying it "is not what dominates our world" during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"People who want to be very political will be talking about (abortion)," Bollier said. "But actual Americans, Kansans really are more interested in their basic needs being met."
Kensinger said voters were irked by the 2019 state court ruling and that Bollier’s record on abortion wasn’t what most Kansans wanted.
"What the Ginsburg vacancy does is it crystallizes in the minds of voters that there are significant differences on issues in this race and the consequences of those differences," he said.
Others think the importance of the abortion issue is being overblown.
"People want to think it makes a difference," said Stephanie Sharp, a former state legislator and political consultant based in Johnson County.
Lawrence resident Jacquelyn Leon said she wasn’t normally the type of person to go to political events.
But she did elect to go hear Bollier speak because she had received repeated mailers from the Marshall campaign about her 2011 vote.
Abortion was an important issue, she said, and she wanted to hear Bollier’s stance on the matter.
"Letting people have choices about their bodies is important and I know people who haven’t had that choice and it is traumatic," Leon said.
It is voters like Leon whom Bollier will hope to see at more of her events across the state, in part owing to Ginsburg’s death.
Democrats nationally raised over $150 million over the weekend following Ginsburg’s death via the liberal fundraising platform ActBlue, a record amount.
Polling from last month showed Marshall with a two-point advantage and in that tight a race, Loomis said, a fundraising boost could make an impact.
"If it meant that Bollier gets an unexpected $1 million, $2 million in her account in the last 30 or 45 days of the race to buy more ads or whatever, it could have an indirect effect," he said.
In Lawrence, Janssen, the woman who made the RBG masks, said she was already tuned in to the Senate race long before the death of her idol.
But she felt the increased attention on a variety of issues, including women’s health, would increase engagement among her friends and neighbors.
"When folks feel affected, then you start having more of an opinion," she said.