Government & Politics

Wagle’s roadmap to U.S. Senate: stick close to Trump, push back hard against Kelly

Even as she prepared for a White House meeting about a possible U.S. Senate run, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle was thinking about her next round of battles with Gov. Laura Kelly back in Topeka.

The Wichita Republican has embraced her status as Kelly’s chief antagonist during the new Democratic governor’s first months in office. She is certain to maintain, if not double down, on that strategy as she mulls a campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat.

She repeatedly pivoted to Kelly when asked about the U.S. Senate race during an interview this week at a café a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Their fights on tax policy and Medicaid expansion will define the final weeks of the Kansas legislative session — and Wagle’s Senate candidacy, if she runs.

“We want to steer Kansas in two different directions,” she said

Wagle, 65, the only woman in the state’s history to lead the Kansas Senate, spent part of the Legislature’s April break in Washington this week to explore a 2020 run. Her itinerary included President Trump’s political team, the Republican Senatorial Committee, and stalwart conservative interest groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)

The White House meeting is a sign of Wagle’s seriousness about the race and an indication that she’ll hew closely to the president’s policies if she runs. The GOP primary will be crowded and winning Trump’s base could be the key to prevailing.

“Trump was elected president. He had a Republican House. He had a Republican Senate. They couldn’t fix health care. They couldn’t fix immigration. Kansans are wary,” she said. “They want some problems fixed and they want a strong pro-Trump conservative as the next U.S. senator.”

Wagle spent the first weeks of the session championing a bill that would have cut $500 million in taxes over three years by preventing the state from collecting a windfall created by federal tax changes.

Wagle appointed herself chair of the committee that crafted the bill, which she said was intended to enact the Trump tax cuts in Kansas. Kelly vetoed the measure which would have allowed Kansans to itemize deductions on their state income taxes even if they don’t itemize their federal returns.

“I’ve had a lot of calls in the last two weeks from Kansans who are complaining about paying more in Kansas income tax than they’re paying in the federal tax,” Wagle said.

She rejected the Democratic arguments that the bill, which would have also created tax breaks for businesses, was a retread of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s economic experiment.

Wagle clashed with Brownback during his second term when the GOP governor resisted changes to his tax plan in the face of plummeting state revenues. But she ultimately did not vote to override Brownback’s veto in 2017 to repeal the tax cuts.

“We can’t have extremism. I mean, Gov. Brownback had the march to zero and he wasn’t willing to tweak it and make it more workable and Gov. Kelly wants to grab every dime she can get. And we need a happy middle,” Wagle said.

“And increasing taxes on Kansans after they already suffered a huge income tax increase is not the right path. So when we get back we’re going to work on another tax bill and fly her another tax bill.”

When Wagle ascended to the presidency of the Kansas Senate in 2013 after more than two decades in Topeka, Kansas Republicans controlled every statewide office, held every Congressional seat and wielded supermajorities in the Legislature.

While they’ve kept their grip on the Legislature, the party is readjusting to life under a Democratic governor. Divided government has enabled Wagle to raise her profile.

“She’s in the news a lot and she’s been able to get attention for defending conservative issues, which is what she’s really going to be need in that primary,” said Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka.

Beatty said that the swearing-in of a Democratic governor, coinciding with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ retirement announcement, was perfect timing for Wagle.

“When you look at (Treasurer) Jake LaTurner or even (Attorney General) Derek Schmidt, for example, they are just not able to get that daily attention that Wagle gets,” Beatty said. “She’s keeping her name in front of party activists. That’s the most important people in this Senate race right now.”

Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Wagle’s rhetoric has been more strident this year. He quipped the she probably watched him during the Brownback years and is now using a similar playbook to build a case against Kelly.

Wagle’s allies have also noticed a shift.

“I think for several years we’ve played offense and now we’re playing defense and I think that’s where Susan is really good,” said state Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican.

“She speaks from the gut,” Lynn said. “When I see her on the floor and she stands up to take the microphone, there is a silent pause throughout the whole chamber and all eyes are on her and she commands a presence and she commands a message like I haven’t seen.”

Wagle disputed the suggestion that has she’s changed her tactics since the election of a Democratic governor.

“It doesn’t change my role,” she said. “It doesn’t change my ideals of what I believe Kansas should look like and the best way to grow Kansas.”

Former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican who often clashed with Wagle, said that she has long held ambitions for higher office. He pointed to Wagle’s efforts to defund a human sexuality course at the University of Kansas in 2003 as an example of her seeking notoriety by playing to hardline conservatives earlier in her career.

“I assume that part of her modus operandi has been geared toward that. I can remember years ago she made a big stink about some people at KU… I think that was to try and keep her name out front. So I think those ambitions have been there,” Morris said.

Wagle has considered runs for Congress and governor before, but her only statewide race was as former state Sen. Jim Barnett’s running mate in 2006 during his unsuccessful run against Sebelius.

She said she will wait until the current legislative session concludes before she makes her final decision on a Senate campaign. Wagle is the only Republican woman in the field of prospective candidates at a time when the party is struggling nationally to win female voters.

“She can play a very successful political woman card and I love that about her,” Lynn said.

Her meeting with NFIB offers some insight into her ideological positioning in the fight with Kelly over Medicaid expansion.

NFIB was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was the defendant as secretary of Health and Human Services — that resulted in a 2012 Supreme Court decision that found the federal government lacked the power to require states to expand Medicaid.

The ruling left the discretion to expand up Medicaid up to states. The Kansas Legislature passed a law in 2014 to require the governor to obtain legislative approval before expanding.

Kelly, who was recruited into the race for governor by Sebelius, has made it her mission to expand the program to cover an additional 150,000 Kansans after watching 36 other states and the District of Columbia expand Medicaid during the past seven years.

Wagle was open to the idea of expansion in the past based on her family’s own battles with cancer, but she’s firmly set against it now because of concerns about the long-term costs.

“It’s going to break our back,” Wagle said. “Health care is the primary driver of the debt at the federal level. And states are complaining to me that have passed expansion that they absolutely can’t afford it. So we have to reform the system.”

Kelly served alongside Wagle during the entirety of her 14 years in the Kansas Senate and said she isn’t seeking an adversarial relationship the Republican senate leader.

“I’ve known President Wagle for a long time. She was here when I got here. And so I’ve had the opportunity to work with her and around her for a very long time,” Kelly said. “I know her style of leadership and I think I know the issues that are important for her. And where it is possible, I will work together with her to move issues ahead.”

Wagle described Kelly as a moderate legislator who has shifted left since taking the governor’s office.

“I think people didn’t know who they were electing. It was an anti-Kobach vote that elected her,” said Wagle, referring to former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Kelly and who may now face Wagle in a Senate 2020 Senate primary.

She and Kelly had a good relationship as lawmakers, Wagle said, before quickly emphasizing that they weren’t close.

“Our paths didn’t really cross very often. We didn’t socialize.”

Shorman reported from Topeka.

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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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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