Senate races

Dems serious about Sebelius

Lauren Schneiderman

Democrats are dying to have Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius enter the Senate race in Kansas.

It seems crazy to Republicans, who see Sebelius as the face of the botched ObamaCare rollout and believe her candidacy would make it even easier for them to win the Senate majority.  

{mosads}But Democrats say her candidacy would make Kansas more winnable, would blunt the problems ObamaCare poses to their party and would force Republicans to pour money into a red state.

“I can’t think of a person who’s in a better position to defend ObamaCare than Sebelius,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. “If she runs and she becomes a viable and serious candidate for Senate, that really throws a wrench into the Republicans’ playbook and certainly their narrative that there’s this kryptonite out there called ObamaCare.”

Republicans believe having the face of ObamaCare’s botched rollout running for the Senate in Kansas would help them make the healthcare law the issue of the midterms.

“She would be Republicans’ favorite choice. It would solidify ObamaCare as the key issue in the fall even further,” said a senior Senate Republican aide. 

The GOP aide said her candidacy would put other vulnerable candidates such as Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) on the defensive. Those candidates would have to answer questions about whether they agree with Sebelius’s views, especially if they all receive backing from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats insist Sebelius’s candidacy would help them in a number of ways.

First and foremost, they think she could win the state that twice elected her as governor.

“It certainly would make the race in Kansas more competitive, which is a good thing for us,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Sebelius won nearly 53 percent of the vote when she was elected governor in 2002 and garnered 58 percent in her 2006 reelection. 

But she would face a tougher political environment in 2014. 

A survey of 693 Kansas voters in February by Public Policy Polling, a liberal pollster, found Sebelius trailing the Republican incumbent, Sen. Pat Roberts, by 14 points in a hypothetical matchup. The same poll showed Obama had only a 34 percent job approval rating in the state. 

Democrats say they’re happy to see her moving on from HHS, since it will allow her criticized department to turn a new page after months of negative scrutiny.

Sebelius may be a better advocate for the controversial healthcare law on the campaign trail than she has been under the bureaucratic constraints of Health and Human Services, they say.

“There’s no doubt that if she ran, the entire focus of the campaign would be on the Affordable Care Act and given the streak of good news the law has had with high enrollments and lower-than-projected costs, that might be a debate worth having,” said Democratic strategist David Di Martino.

Having Sebelius as a candidate in Kansas would also force Republicans to play defense and spend money in a solidly red state.

“I do think it will have an impact in terms of the Republicans being forced to defend a Senate seat that they completely take for granted right now,” Devine said.

Democrats see Roberts, who was first elected to the upper chamber in 1996, as vulnerable even though Kansas has not had a Democratic senator since former Sen. George McGill in the 1930s. 

Roberts was damaged by the revelation earlier this year that he does not have his own home in Kansas and listed the residence of a longtime supporter has his voting residence.

He has made himself more of a target in a general election by shifting to the right to fend off a conservative primary challenge from Milton Wolf. Roberts voted against the 2014 farm bill and against funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., Democrats note.

The PPP poll showed Sebelius matching up more favorably against Wolf. It showed Wolf ahead by only7 points, 46 percent to 39 percent.

The New York Times set off the buzz about Sebelius when it reported Wednesday that she is thinking about a run, citing a person who spoke directly to her.

A number of Democratic aides question whether her getting in the race is likely. 

“I think it’s unlikely she would end up following through and doing it,” the aide added.

Unless Senate Democratic leaders push Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, the only declared Democratic candidate out of the race, a bid by Sebelius could open up a messy intra-party debate over ObamaCare.

Taylor said in an interview Wednesday that Sebelius did not do a good job rolling out the Affordable Care Act, which was beset by technical glitches.

“Look at the problems associated with the accessibility of the program on the front end, the stuff that was talk of news for two or three weeks,” he said. “The beta testing on that was probably rushed.”

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