Glamour: Barbara Bollier Is Running for Senate. Her Platform? Congress Is Sick; Send a Doctor
By Jenny Singer
Barbara Bollier, M.D.—anesthesiologist, Kansas state senator, mother of two—is bouncing on a giant exercise ball. She’s been using it to strengthen her core during marathon town halls, campaign calls, and Zoom meetings. “I haven’t been in such good shape since I was in college,” she says.
What with taking care of her constituents, running for U.S. Senate, and drawing on her experience as a doctor to lead in the midst of the greatest health crisis in living memory, multitasking is Bollier’s only option. But she laughs out loud—a long, friendly, Midwestern shout of laughter—when it is suggested that she must be pretty busy.
“Show me a woman who isn’t busy,” she says, still bouncing.
As far as quarantine hobbies goes, this one should serve her well. Because Bollier will need all the muscle she can get. While she has a decade of experience in politics, decades more experience saving lives, and this Instagram video in which her knit cardigan echoes the pleasing pattern of the ceramic cookie jar behind her, her Senate campaign is audacious.
If Bollier (pronounced, per her Twitter bio, like [bowl emoji] + [hands-up emoji]) wins, she will be the first woman doctor ever elected to the U.S. Senate. (There have been 53 doctors in the Senate, all men. There are three currently in office, all men, all Republican. There are 14 doctors in the House of Representatives; one is a woman.) She is also running as a Democrat for a seat that a Republican has occupied for over 100 years. The Washington Post notes that in the whole of American history, the seat Bollier is seeking to fill is the most Republican—ever. Oh, and there’s this: Despite her time in office, she’s never been elected as a Democrat.
In 2018, Bollier, a lifelong moderate Republican, left her party—the party of her parents, the party that elected her three times, the party of the majority of Kansans.
As a doctor and as a public servant, she says, she couldn’t support her party’s blocking of the expansion of Medicaid, a measure which 80% of people in her state support and which would cover an additional 150,000 Kansans.
She wanted to focus on funding public schools; her party wanted to focus on adopting an anti-transgender, anti-LGBTQ platform condemning gay marriage and stating that “God created two genders.” (“It’s absurd,” she told NBC News at the time. “That really, as a physician, set me over the edge, because we have more than XX and XY, and gender is a very complicated and important thing.”)
She wanted to work across party lines; her party wanted to back Donald Trump to the hilt. (“My moral compass is saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she told NBC News. “I can’t be complicit.”)
“My values have not changed at all. The people I represent—their values haven’t changed. My votes haven’t changed. The party changed.”
As she puts it politely to me now, her decision to walk out on her own party made “a few pretty important Republican people pretty mad.” But precisely speaking, Bollier doesn’t feel she has walked out. She didn’t have a great awakening. There was no inciting incident that caused her to veer left, or renounce her past. “My values have not changed at all,” she tells Glamour. “The people I represent—their values haven’t changed. My votes haven’t changed. The party changed.”
Bollier has been voting to mandate health care coverage since her first year in office. Same goes for voting against abortion restrictions, again and again. Bollier, who grew up hunting, has described herself as supporting the Second Amendment but has advocated “common-sense” gun-violence prevention “from a public health perspective” throughout her political career. At the height of the 2016 election, she went on air to talk about getting affordable contraceptives for women who are uninsured but don’t qualify for Medicaid. These aren’t radical, left-wing policies; in fact, Bollier would say they passed for dead-center Republican ideals for most of her political career. But as the GOP has taken a sharp right turn, common-sense gun-violence prevention and affordable health care have been ceded to the Democrats.
“When women are making very difficult health care decisions, the last thing they want is a politician in between them and their doctor,” Bollier tells Glamour. Her attitude is grounded not just in human rights but in science. In 2012, when Bollier was in the Kansas House of Representatives, she watched as her Republican colleagues passed a bill that would require doctors to tell pregnant women that getting an abortion could increase their risk of breast cancer. “That’s simply not true,” Bollier says, exasperated. “Following science really does matter.”
Which brings us to this moment.
Bollier announced in October 2019 that she planned to run for Kansas’s vacant Senate seat (Senator Pat Roberts is planning to retire after four terms.) At the time, America was facing an impeachment trial and fears of nuclear war, and there were reports that the [resident had suggested a snake-filled moat might keep migrants out of the country.
Things were about to become so, so much worse.
Five months later Bollier—still running for Senate—is doing a digital town hall during a pandemic, calmly explaining to Mary, a seamstress with 70 years of experience, the scientific reasons why true personal protective equipment (PPE) is better for health care providers than hand-sewn cloth masks. “However, if we get to the point where we have nothing, a cotton mask is better than nothing,” Bollier tells Mary, and the rest of the listening Kansans. “Give me a holler,” she adds, and she’ll find out whether hospitals need Mary’s help.
Bollier’s experience as a doctor always informed her work as a legislator, but these days the connection is more literal. She has released videos defining “top medical terms we’re seeing in the media right now,” like N-95 and ventilator.
During her digital town hall, I heard her rattle off, when asked, the exact number of negative coronavirus tests that had been recorded at the time in her county (622) and her prognosis on the vaccine. (“I will tell you in my estimation as a physician that I think it will be a minimum of 12 months until we are in that place,” she said. “I think we will be practicing social distancing for a very long time. Gear up, folks.”)
As Bollier patiently breaks down public health information for her constituents, her potential opponents have been locked in an argument over which one of them least supports transgender rights.
Usually Bollier’s work as a policymaker with a background in health shows up less in her understanding of medical terminology (though she did casually drop the word phenotype during our interview) and more in her explaining why all Kansans should have access to medical care. Her father’s words, “Medicine is too expensive. Health care costs too much,” rang in her ears as she wrote legislation to end surprise billing in Kansas. Bollier’s father was also a doctor. Her mother was a nurse. Her husband is a doctor. Her daughter, Anne Marie, is in school…to become a doctor.
“I became a doctor so I could help people and make their lives better and ultimately as an anesthesiologist give them an experience under surgery where they wouldn’t hurt,” Bollier says. “And I went into public service for the very same reason, and that is to take care of people and make their lives better.”
More than a Democrat or Republican, Bollier’s campaign bills her as “a voice of reason.” In Kansas, which is reliably Republican but often moderate-leaning, this makes sense. It’s a title that countless politicians have tried to claim—it’s how conservative publications describe Donald Trump, how the Democratic establishment has described Joe Biden, and how Elon Musk has described himself. “Reason” in politics is subjective. And identifying as “the voice of reason” means that a politician wants to be seen as somehow above politics or not beholden to a particular set of ideologies. That’s not true of Bollier—her aim is not to seem clean of partisan politics but rather to be consistent in her values—ethically spotless.
“What I am most proud of as a woman elected official is that I have always maintained my integrity and always been able to vote for what I know is right,” she says. “I’ve never compromised and I won’t. Sometimes I may be the only person voting a certain way, because it’s what needs to be said and done.” Funding public schools, expanding Medicare, stopping surprise billing—the reason to do these things is not party affiliation, Bollier argues, but because they are the right thing to do.
Announcing that you will heal partisan divisions is, ironically, usually a way for a politician to say, “Everyone except me is bad.” That’s not Bollier’s thing. “We are called to be in community,” she says. “I’m not trying to be all religious, but I do believe we are called to care for each other in society with dignity and honor.”
That’s part of what goes so wrong with horrors like the police killing of George Floyd, she says. “We’ve got to start listening to Black Americans and what issues they say need to be dealt with.” Police overreach, she argues, also points to why Medicare and programs like drug rehab centers need to be better funded—“People should be able to get treatment rather than being incarcerated. Our police need to be able to spend their time protecting against violence and violent offenders rather than being mental health providers.” Politics that deals with people violently, that refuses to acknowledge human dignity—that’s just not common sense.
This line of thinking would make Bollier an appealing protagonist in a YA novel, or the kind of person who might deliver a closing monologue in The West Wing. As a woman politician living on the farthest eastern edge of Kansas, however, it’s a recipe for constant criticism. In 2018, when she endorsed a Democrat for Congress, even though she was still a GOP member herself, she was stripped of her position on the Senate health committee—a significant loss for a former physician. (She says she endorsed the person who was “clearly the best candidate.”) During the primary, the spokesperson for Kansans For Life, an anti-choice group, endorsed one of Bollier’s opponents by billing Bollier as “an abortion fanatic.”
She weathers these moments not just with ab-strengthening exercises but with a different kind of muscle: six women; a 28-year friendship. They call themselves Intentionally Being Women Together (IBWT), and they’re like a book club, Bollier explains, but for the soul. “We take annual retreats to really delve deep into being better people in this world,” she says. “That’s why I'm able to do what I do and run for office—a lot of women shy away from it because of the public exposure and the potential hurt and meanness. And having women who have my back, I just know, ‘I can do this.’”
Bollier’s win would be huge—it would break the long-running Republican streak in Kansas, it would bring Democrats closer to flipping the Senate, and it would mark a powerful first in the form of a woman M.D. in the Senate. Her campaign has raised record amounts, and she’s received endorsements from Emily’s List, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ foundation, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. The stakes are the kind that lend themselves to iconic tweets and self-aware forays into TikTok.
But Bollier’s brand is common sense, which does not translate as well on social media. She’s not here to be America’s mom, or best friend, or cool older sister. She does not have a dog with an independent media presence, or a lipstick brand to recommend as she talks through ballot measures. She captioned a recent Instagram video of her iced sugar cookies with “I made cookies.” Barbara Bollier is a doctor. She is here to get you health care that you can afford without losing your home. She is here to call out anti-science B.S., not with cool tweets, just with facts.
Yes, she’s busy. But she’s just doing what she feels is right.
“Women know how to work hard,” she says. “You hear excuses—‘Oh well, we were doing X, and that’s why Y didn’t happen.’ And, hello—I can do A to Z, plus! That’s what needs to get done, so that’s what we’re doing.”