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 PompeoAs tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Trump's Huawei concession is 'the rope that could hang America' 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 RobertsKansas Republican suggests Kobach candidacy threatens Senate GOP majority The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 jitters hit both parties in the Senate GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries 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 TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA 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. MarshallKansas Republican suggests Kobach candidacy threatens Senate GOP majority Kobach to run for Senate in Kansas 95-year-old Bob Dole promoted from Army captain to colonel 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 YoungGOP chairman introduces bill to force 'comprehensive review' of US-Saudi relationship Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Congress needs to repeal the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force 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 DavidsOcasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud This week: House Democrats voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Trump doubles down after telling Democratic congresswomen to 'go back' to their countries MORE ousted former Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Mike Pompeo to speak at Missouri-Kansas Forum amid Senate bid speculation 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 SchumerNYT: Don't make Acosta a political martyr Charities say they never received donations touted by Jeffrey Epstein: report Schumer to donate Epstein campaign contributions to groups fighting sexual violence 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 SebeliusFederal investigators concluded Ryan Zinke's MAGA socks violated Hatch Act Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? 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) MoranBottom Line Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown Trade truce puts focus on next steps in US-China talks MORE (R-Kan.).