Government & Politics

‘Wide open race’ and open wallets in Kansas after Pompeo rules out 2020 Senate run

A giant obstacle has been cleared from the path of Kansas politicians who want a spot in the U.S. Senate now that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he has ruled out a run in 2020.

During a Thursday appearance on The Today Show, Pompeo initially gave his standard answer: that he’d serve as the nation’s top diplomat as long as President Donald Trump wants him in the position.

But when pressed by NBC’s Craig Melvin, the former Kansas congressman finally delivered an unambiguous response.

“It’s ruled out. I’m here. I’m loving it,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo has until June of 2020 to change his mind – and some Washington insiders are hoping he does. But in Kansas, Pompeo’s comments served as a bright green light for those aspiring to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

“It’s a wide open race now,” said Mark Kahrs, Kansas’ Republican National Committeeman. “With Mike Pompeo removing himself… It should stop any hesitation from other candidates from announcing.”

It’s not just Republicans who will be emboldened by Pompeo’s comments. His absence has Democrats hoping they can win a Senate seat in Kansas for the first time since 1932.

“Pompeo getting out opens a lot of Democratic wallets,” said Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic National Committeeman.

Reeves noted that Kansas Democrats sat out the 2014 Senate race— the party even went to court to ensure it didn’t have to appoint a replacement after its nominee dropped out— but that going into 2020 the thinking is, “Holy cow, we could win the Senate seat.”

It’ll depend on who Republicans nominate, Reeves said.

“This starts a feeding frenzy on the Republican side where a whole lot of people look to do this because it’s anybody’s game now. And that’s going to drag them pretty far to the right… and that’s good for us,” Reeves said.

Pompeo’s shadow has hovered over the race since Roberts announced his retirement on Jan. 4, pushing other GOP candidates into the background and scaring away donors.

Kahrs pointed to Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, as the possible contender who stood the most to lose if Pompeo decided to run. He would have to give up a safe House seat to make the race.

Marshall represents the heavily Republican “Big First,” the sprawling western Kansas district that covers more than half the state and has produced numerous GOP senators, including Roberts, Sen. Jerry Moran and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Kahrs said Pompeo’s comments should open up the lane for Marshall to run, creating another open seat race to replace him in the House.

“I would argue that a Republican senator in Kansas is a senator for life,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. “Marshall is risking a House seat for life for a Senate seat for life. So big risk, big payoff.”

Marshall met this month with Sen. Todd Young, the Indiana Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to discuss a possible campaign.

The NRSC has also met with Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, the only officially-declared candidate, meaning he has a campaign committee that can raise money.

But Marshall will still be able to collect donations through his House campaign committee. He entered the year with more than $600,000 left over from his 2018 re-election.

Marshall’s chief adviser, Brent Robertson, said that April fundraising totals would identify the party’s strongest candidate.

“Dr. Marshall is still in no rush to make a definitive decision,” Robertson said in an email. “It’s easy for anyone at this point to say they’re interested in running for the Senate - however, the first test for any potential candidate will be the level of support they receive on April’s report. That is where the wheat will be separated from the chaff.”

A long list of big Republican names are weighing runs, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, former Gov. Jeff Colyer and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom has taken steps toward the Democratic primary, meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, in Washington last week.

Democrats believe their best chance to win the seat could be if Kobach, the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee, wins the primary. Several Republican strategists with ties to Kansas have been outspoken in their opposition to another statewide run by Kobach.

David Kensinger, who has run campaigns for Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback, said Pompeo’s decision not to run means there will likely be five credible candidates in the GOP primary.

“And the danger is if it at some point we don’t coalesce around the strongest one we end up in a scenario like what happened in 2018,” Kensinger said.

Kobach’s former campaign manager J.R. Claeys, a state representative from Salina, suggested the former Kansas secretary of state could have other options based on his relationship with President Donald Trump.

“Kris will make a great Senator for the state of Kansas. But I also think a cabinet position is a very real possibility,” Claeys said in a text message. “Based on his resume, he’d be a strong Secretary of Homeland Security.”

Kobach advised Trump on immigration during the 2016 campaign and met with him about a strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security. Later, he headed a presidential commission to investigate voter fraud, which was disbanded before it found any evidence.

Concerns about Kobach’s potential candidacy helped fuel the effort to recruit Pompeo into the race. And that recruitment effort could continue despite Pompeo’s comments on the Today Show.

“I believe him right now,” Beatty said. “The fact is it’s a long way away until he would have to rule out jumping in the race.”

Other high profile candidates have ruled out Senate races in the past before mounting runs. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, initially refused to run for re-election in the Senate in 2016 after his presidential bid fizzled. But he changed his mind two months before the primary.

Pompeo will return to Kansas next month for a speech in Overland Park at a March 18 event hosted by the State Department, which will be his first official visit to his home state as secretary of state.

Robert Mealy, a Kansas lobbyist who had described Pompeo as a blanket smothering other candidacies, said: “I don’t think anyone will really be convinced until the filing deadline passes.”

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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