‘Cultural split.’ Marshall picks fights on transgender teens, meatless Mondays in Senate

Bryan Lowry
·14 min read

In his first major address on the floor of U.S. Senate Wednesday, Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall said he was elected “to protect the Kansas values I was raised on.”

Those values, such as faith, family and limited government, “are still held by the majority of Americans and many of us are tired of being canceled, censored and lectured to,” he said.

Marshall went on to mock the term “woke,” which originated in the Black community and is now used widely to describe people or groups awakened to the realities of systemic racism.

“I acknowledge we all need to be ‘woke’ up sometimes, woke up for church on Sunday, woke as a child to help milk the cows on my grandparents’ farm. But we don’t need the woke mob to shake us out of bed every day,” Marshall said.

The speech came just over 100 days into Marshall’s first Senate term. In that brief time he’s emerged as one of the chamber’s most outspoken cultural warriors, waging battles against the transgender community and taking virtually every opportunity to denounce political correctness and liberal orthodoxy.

Hours after his address promising to uphold Kansas values, he became one of just six senators to vote against advancing a bill intended to curb hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Marshall’s confrontational style was foreshadowed in his 2020 campaign against Democrat Barbara Bollier. But it might surprise those who remember how he proselytized pragmatism during his 2016 primary race against Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party firebrand.

During his rise from Great Bend doctor to senator, Marshall framed himself as one in the long line of conservative but practical western Kansas Republicans like Sens. Bob Dole and Pat Roberts, whose support he enjoyed in his 2020 primary against former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Since joining the Senate, however, Marshall has adopted many of Kobach’s core causes: border security, prohibitions on transgender athletes in school sports and casting doubt, without evidence, on the integrity of elections.

This week’s “maiden speech,”— the Senate’s traditional term for new members introducing major policy goals or their political outlook — was not his actual debut. His first words on the Senate floor will be far more memorable, possibly legacy-defining.

On Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol in hopes of thwarting President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, Marshall spoke in support of throwing out Arizona’s 11 electoral votes.

“I want my fellow Kansans and all Americans to know that I’ve given as much consideration and thought surrounding the issue of objecting to a state’s Electoral College vote as I did considering the treatment plan for a serious health concern,” said Marshall, an OB-GYN.

“I rise today to restore integrity to our republic,” he said, asserting that activist courts, governors and secretaries of state had usurped authority over the election from state legislatures.

Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Kansas, contrasted Marshall’s ideological approach with his predecessors, who cultivated reputations as deal-makers whose cross-aisle relationships helped them to steer federal resources to Kansas.

“I see what he chooses to emphasize and I just shake my head. Because it is out of the tradition of Kansas senators who have been workhorses,” Loomis said. “They’re not really a showy bunch.”

Marshall’s eagerness to wade into the latest contentious issue has earned him frequent cable news appearances. But many of the bills he’s championed are unlikely to advance beyond press releases.

A day before Wednesday’s speech, Marshall unveiled the TASTEE Act (Telling Agencies to Stop Tweaking What Employees Eat), which would prohibit federal agencies from banning the service of meat to employees.

“The Biden Administration should not have the right to make radical political statements at the expense of federal employees’ dietary options and America’s hardworking farmers and livestock producers,” Marshall said in a statement announcing the bill.

Neither Biden nor any federal agency is pursuing a policy of restricting meat consumption by government workers.

So why are Marshall and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst seeking to crack down on something that is not taking place?

The bill’s apparent impetus is a nine-year-old interoffice email encouraging USDA employees to reduce their carbon footprints by voluntarily participating in “Meatless Mondays,” part of a global campaign by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health.

After an uproar from the meat industry and GOP lawmakers, USDA quickly retracted the suggestion. Marshall’s news release referred to the email as “infamous.” On Twitter, he warned about about “food police.”

‘People with a Y-chromosome’

Marshall has sponsored a series of bills and amendments that would restrict transgender students’ participation in women’s sports programs, prohibit federal funding for gender transition treatments and bar doctors from administering these treatments to minors under a possible penalty of prison time.

During Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing, Marshall suggested he would prefer to ask about other matters but had been forced into focusing on transgender issues by the Biden administration’s policies.

“I would like to talk about rural America schools, but instead I have to talk about transgender issues. So that’s sad to me,” Marshall said before launching into a question about transgender students’ participation in girls’ sports. “There’s nothing American about letting people with a Y-chromosome compete against women.”

Two other Republican senators had already asked Cardona similar questions. Marshall’s inquiry elicited the same response: that the 2020 Supreme Court decision barring employment discrimination based on gender identity was the foundation for a similar policy in school sports. Marshall later voted against Cardona’s confirmation, specifically citing his answer.

Marshall declined to conduct an interview without preconditions about his first 100 days in the Senate, a milestone he reached last Sunday.

In an email his chief of staff, Brent Robertson, rejected the premise that Marshall has focused on culture war issues, citing public comments about COVID-19, the Keystone Pipeline and energy policy.

However, Robertson defended Marshall’s cultural advocacy as an essential part of the senator’s duties.

“These are unprecedented times with an unprecedented cultural split between urban/corporate America and everyone else, and it’s been coming to a head these last 100 days. Despite the immense pressure to fold his cards and be quiet, Senator Marshall has openly represented the commonsense beliefs of the majority of Kansans,” Robertson said.

“While Dr. Marshall’s top legislative priorities are protecting Agriculture, making healthcare more affordable, and protecting our values, there are certain issues that warrant speaking out. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Kansan who believes biological boys should be allowed to play girls sports — this is rudimentary stuff.”

State Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat who became the first transgender person elected to the Kansas Legislature — the same night Marshall won his Senate seat — said his bills have harmed that community even though they’re unlikely to even get a congressional hearing.

“It feels like an onslaught that we’re being targeted by people who never take the time to meet us,” Byers said.

“It’s targeting a very small group of marginalized people in ways that are incredibly detrimental to mental health… and all types of aspects of just trying to exist.”

State GOP officials, who are pursuing similar policies in Topeka, were universal in their praise of Marshall’s first months in office. State Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, gave him five stars.

“He had big shoes to fill, but at the same time I think he’s really trying hard to represent Kansans and their priorities,” Williams said.

Grilling Fauci, poking at Pelosi

In March, at the height of the furor over the decision by Dr. Seuss’ estate to pull six of the author’s 60 books from publication because of racist imagery, Marshall appeared before reporters in the Senate basement holding a copy of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”

The book Marshall was holding wasn’t one of the books being pulled. And the text he read wasn’t from the book.

Instead, it was a poem entitled “One Mask, Two Mask, Red Mask, Blue Mask,” which urged states to lift COVID-19 restrictions. It featured potshots at California Gov. Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, two prominent Democrats who faced accusations of hypocrisy last year for flouting restrictions.

“Dinner at the French Laundry, now the governor’s in a quandary/ The speaker went in for a blow out, then got on TV just to pout,” Marshall read, referencing months-old flaps over Pelosi’s indoor hair salon appointment that violated San Francisco’s COVID-19 rules and Newsom’s defiance of his own administration’s guidelines by attending a lobbyist’s birthday dinner at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant.

Asked the purpose of the reading, Marshall’s office said at the time it was the senator’s way of making his points to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor, who was testifying before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that day.

During the hearing, Marshall grilled Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about the COVID-19 risks posed by migrants at the southern border while arguing that the rules for the average American remain too strict.

“Do you see the hypocrisy in what we’re doing to America? We’re saying that I can’t have a barbecue with my entire family on the July 4th (holiday). I can’t have Easter service worship together, but we’re going to let people come across the border in mass numbers,” Marshall said.

‘Truth in advertising’

After ousting Huelskamp in 2016, Marshall was sometimes painted as a moderate by the national media. He had supported then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich over Trump in the 2016 GOP primary.

By the time he entered the U.S. House in 2017, Marshall was loyal supporter of Trump’s policies. He voted with the former president 98% of the time, more than any other member of the Kansas delegation.

Still, Kobach tried to portray Marshall as soft on border security and social issues during their heated 2020 primary race.

But during his first months in the Senate, Marshall has fully shed the moderate image, and emerged as a familiar face on Fox News, Newsmax and other right-leaning outlets championing border security and other issues that once belonged to Kobach.

“Senator Marshall has always had one priority: Protecting Kansans and their values. Labels have never been on his radar,” Robertson said in an email.

Marshall’s allies said he’s just keeping the promises he made as a candidate.

Mark Dugan, a Wichita GOP strategist who has worked for former Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republicans, said that Marshall “should probably get an award for truth in advertising.”

Eric Pahls, a Kansas City area Republican consultant and Marshall’s 2020 campaign manager, said Marshall has never campaigned as anything other than a staunch conservative.

“Those who have cast him as anything other than a solid Kansas conservative haven’t paid attention,” Pahls said. “He’s been exactly who he said he is, and Kansas voters will reward him for that.”

Loomis questioned the long-term wisdom of focusing on social issues.

“He didn’t have to compete for that vote anymore and a more traditional Kansas senator would say, OK, I’m on the Ag Committee, I’m going to keep my head down and do that business,” Loomis said.

Loomis said rather than fashioning himself after Roberts, Marshall appears to be looking to Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley as a role model.

Hawley was the first senator to announce an objection to Biden’s Electoral College win, prompting Marshall and others to follow. He also spent a portion of Wednesday’s speech attacking the tech industry, long a Hawley target.

For his part, Hawley said he’s been impresed. The Missouri senator praised Marshall’s work ethic and willingness to take on the cultural debate.

“We’ve gotten to work together on a number of things and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him a little bit personally. I didn’t know him at all before his election… But I just think he’s doing a tremendous job. I think he’s very courageous,” Hawley said Tuesday.

“I think he’s a very serious policy guy, somebody who is clearly very interested in policy, takes it seriously, very engaged in legislation, putting forward his own legislation. I think he’s done a lot in his first 100 days. It signals to me he is someone who is really going to be somebody who wants to get things accomplished,” Hawley said.

Contrast with Moran

Marshall’s primary win relied heavily on support from business groups, such as the Kansas Farm Bureau and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Their issues have so far taken a backseat as Marshall has focused on culture wars.

Ryan Flickner, senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau, attributed this to the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which he said has cast a shadow over the congressional session.

“That fog is still lingering. We’ve got to move away from that and move away from the raw politics,” said Flickner, a former aide to Roberts.

He didn’t blame Marshall for the partisan rancor, but didn’t absolve him either. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s everybody’s fault. When can we start reaching back out across the aisle?” he asked.

Hearing Flickner’s comments, Marshall blamed the division on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused many Democrats to attend meetings via Zoom to facilitate social distancing.

“COVID has been the biggest factor as many Democrats and their staff are not as accessible. The conversations that would normally happen in the cafeteria... are just not happening,” Marshall said in an emailed statement.

Marshall cited his sponsorship of a bipartisan bill to ensure small farmers access to the Paycheck Protection Program as an example of how he’s worked across the aisle on agricultural issues. He also pointed to sponsorship of a bipartisan bill tweaking exclusivity rules for pharmaceutical companies to facilitate the manufacture of generic drugs. The bill was sent to Biden’s desk Wednesday.

But generally Marshall has been less likely to come to the negotiating table in the 50-50 Senate than Sen. Jerry Moran, a fellow Kansas Republican who stands for re-election next year. It is a contrast noted by Flickner, whose organization has supported both Republicans in the past.

“It’s rather ironic (given) that Dr. Marshall just got elected to a six-year term… and Sen. Moran is up for re-election in 2022,” Flickner said. “The fact that Sen. Moran is still trying to govern and make Kansas better and help Kansas industries is absolutely to be commended.”

Moran met with Biden early in his presidency and is a member of the “Sweet Sixteen,” an informal group of senators from both parties working to find consensus on legislation.

These bipartisan relationships have enabled Moran to pass multiple pieces of legislation this year, expanding vaccine access for veterans’ families and helping the Wichita aviation industry.

Moran was careful when asked about their differing approaches Tuesday.

“We have nothing but cooperation between the two of us,” Moran said. “What I would say is that it’s the first 100 days, getting your feet on the ground. This is a very minute amount of time in which a new senator can figure out how they want to conduct themselves.”

He also noted the unusual circumstances created by the pandemic, the Jan. 6 attack and the change in party control that have made it difficult for any senator to find their footing.

“There’s been so much trauma and drama, both, and the change in leadership from (Kentucky Republican Mitch) McConnell to (New York Democrat Chuck) Schumer. There’s just a lot of differences. The place is different for me as well, so trying to navigate that in your first 100 days is difficult.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed to this report.