Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo

Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo
© Greg Nash

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process MORE’s decision not to seek a coveted Senate seat in Kansas has created a wide-open playing field that has energized would-be candidates on both sides of the aisle.

The decision has raised the prospect of a GOP primary field that could draw at least five or six candidates, including Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee.

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Meanwhile, Democrats see Pompeo’s absence from the race as a chance to win their first Senate seat in Kansas since 1932.

For Republicans hoping to succeed retiring Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP hopes to move new NAFTA deal before impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report - Worries about war in world capitals, Congress Pompeo tells McConnell he's not running for Senate MORE (R-Kan.), Pompeo’s resolve to stay at the State Department clears a major obstacle.

The top diplomat would have almost certainly entered the race as the GOP’s presumptive nominee, giving him an early advantage in courting donors and hiring seasoned campaign staffers.

Pompeo, however, appeared to close the door on a Senate run during an interview on NBC’s “Today” last week, saying that he plans to stay in his current role “as long as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE gives me the opportunity to serve as America’s senior diplomat.”

“It’s ruled out,” Pompeo said of a possible Senate campaign. “I’m here. I’m loving it.”

Only one Republican candidate has entered the race so far, Kansas state Treasurer Jake LaTurner.

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But a handful of politicians are weighing a potential run. Rep. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallPompeo tells McConnell he's not running for Senate Meat industry is trying to stifle plant-based food innovation Improving maternal health with data and care coordination MORE (R-Kan.) is almost certain to enter the race and is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks, according to multiple GOP operatives with ties to Kansas.

Marshall met with Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungIran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner Senate GOP's campaign arm hauls in million in 2019 Sens. Kaine, Lee: 'We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorizes it' MORE (R-Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, earlier this month in the latest sign that he’s inching toward a Senate run.

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, who lost his primary contest last year to Kobach, is also said to be considering a Senate bid.

Other potential contenders include Kansas state Senate President Susan Wagle and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, as well as Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union.

Schlapp has said that he will make a decision on a campaign after his group’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which is set to end on Saturday.

The crowded field of potential contenders could come at a cost.

David Kensinger, a veteran GOP strategist who managed campaigns for both Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback, said the absence of a political giant like Pompeo increases the chances of a drawn-out primary fight.

“Pompeo would have cleared the field on the Republican side, so his absence increases the probability of a fractious Republican primary,” Kensinger said.

That could lead to a scenario similar to the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, where Kansas Republicans failed to coalesce around a single candidate, he said.

That year, the party nominated Kobach, a hard-line conservative whom many Republican operatives have criticized for running a messy – and ultimately unsuccessful – campaign.

One veteran GOP operative with deep ties to Kansas said that a Senate campaign by Kobach could give Kansas Democrats their best hope of capturing their first seat in the chamber in nearly 90 years.

“If it’s Kobach, hell yes, that’s a major race,” said the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the would-be primary field. The operative noted, however, that “I don’t see Kobach getting through the primary.”

Democrats in the state are increasingly optimistic about their chances in 2020 after a successful showing in last year’s midterm elections: Laura Kelly notched a victory over Kobach in the governor’s race and Democrat Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsHaaland, Davids included in 'Jeopardy' clue for historic first as Native American congresswomen The Hill's Morning Report - Vulnerable Dems are backing Trump impeachment Vulnerable Democrats signal support for impeachment articles this week MORE ousted former Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderSharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' Feehery: How Republicans can win back the suburbs K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (R-Kan.) in Kansas’s 3rd District, putting a blue dent in the state’s previously all-Republican congressional delegation.

So far, one Democrat, former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, has moved toward a possible Senate run. He met with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump administration installs plaque marking finish of 100 miles of border wall Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications MORE (D-N.Y.) in Washington about a potential campaign earlier this month.

Another name has been floated as well: former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusJerry Moran: 'I wouldn't be surprised' if Pompeo ran for Senate in Kansas Mark Halperin inks book deal 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE. Sebelius, who served as governor of Kansas from 2003 until 2009, would enter the race with wide-reaching name recognition and a vast network of political connections.

But Sebelius hasn’t yet taken steps toward a potential campaign and has said she doesn’t plan to run for public office again. John Gibson, the chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, acknowledged that a Senate bid by the former HHS chief appeared to be a long shot.

“I would be very surprised if Kathleen jumped into that race,” Gibson said.

To be sure, Kansas is a longtime GOP stronghold. President Trump carried the state by more than 20 points in 2016, and with the real estate mogul on the ballot once again in 2020, Republican candidates down-ballot could see a boost.

Gibson acknowledged that Democrats are likely to face an uphill battle in their campaign for Roberts’s seat, saying that he doesn’t “think a U.S. Senate race in Kansas is going to have a Democratic favorite.”

But he also pointed to the party’s successes in 2018 and the state’s growing Latino population, particularly in southwest Kansas, as evidence that the state may be moving toward a broader political change.

“I think we have a real opportunity in 2020,” Gibson said. “I don’t want to put that on Republican disarray or anything like that. I think, as we saw in the gubernatorial election in 2018, the political tides are shifting in Kansas.”

Republicans, however, are still bullish on their chances in 2020.

“I will bet a lot of money that whoever comes out of the [Republican] primary will be the next U.S. senator from Kansas,” said Todd Novascone, the former longtime chief of staff to Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Defense: War powers fight runs into impeachment | Kaine has 51 votes for Iran resolution | Trump plans to divert .2B from Pentagon to border wall War powers fight in Senate runs squarely into impeachment Third GOP senator says he'll support Iran war powers resolution MORE (R-Kan.).