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 PompeoDemocrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran 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 RobertsEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Pressure builds on Pompeo as impeachment inquiry charges ahead GOP lawmakers fear Trump becoming too consumed by impeachment fight 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 TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed 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. MarshallMeat industry is trying to stifle plant-based food innovation Improving maternal health with data and care coordination Trump tears into impeachment probe, witnesses in early Twitter spree 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 YoungTester: Our forefathers would not have tolerated Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Erdoğan at White House | Says Turkish leader has 'great relationship with the Kurds' | Highlights from first public impeachment hearing 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 DavidsOvernight Health Care: Democratic group to only endorse AG candidates who back abortion rights | Protect Our Care launches seven-figure ad buy to boost vulnerable Dems | California sues Juul Group launches seven-figure ad buy boosting vulnerable Democrats on drug prices Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight MORE ousted former Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderFeehery: How Republicans can win back the suburbs K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo 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 SchumerSenate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary 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) MoranSenate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number MORE (R-Kan.).