Government & Politics

White House meets with Kobach running mate and ex-Koch lobbyist on Kansas Senate seat

The White House political team has met with at least three Kansas Republicans this month about potential 2020 runs for the open U.S. Senate seat—including Kris Kobach’s former running mate and a former lobbyist for Koch Industries.

Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman visited the White House on Tuesday for a meeting with President Donald Trump’s political staff, according to an itinerary obtained by The Kansas City Star.

“They were great meetings. The people I met with were very gracious,” Hartman said in a phone call Thursday.

Hartman, 73, was the main source of funding for Kobach’s failed campaign for Kansas governor in 2018, steering $2.5 million into the race as the Republican’s running mate after abandoning his own bid for governor.

“I realized that President Trump needs more allies in the Senate who know what it’s like to create jobs and fight regulations,” Hartman said. “I think that the voters who supported me for lieutenant governor understand that I’m the real conservative.”

Hartman said his next step will be to sit down with his wife and business associates before he makes a final decision on a Senate campaign.

A multimillionaire and longtime GOP donor, Hartman previously confirmed to The Wichita Eagle his interest in a 2020 campaign for the seat that will be vacated by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, at the end of the current term.

Hartman’s potential entry into the race could complicate a possible run by Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who has also been seeking a role in the Trump administration.

The day after his White House meeting, Hartman met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Club for Growth and Securing America’s Future Energy, a group that lobbies to increase production of domestic oil and natural gas.

“He could get in a lot later than someone who has to raise the money,” said Colin Hoffman, a GOP strategist based in Kansas City. “That’s one thing being a self-funder buys you is time.”

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, last week revealed her own string of Washington meetings related to the race, including stops at the White House and NRSC.

Another Kansas Republican with ties to Trump has also quietly been gearing up for a potential run.

Alan Cobb, the president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that he had meetings in early April with the White House and NRSC.

Cobb, 53, served as an adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign and worked on the president’s transition team.

He has deep ties to Wichita’s billionaire Koch family and would be well positioned to tap into that network to fund his campaign.

Before his current role at the state chamber, Cobb was a lobbyist for Koch Industries, Kansas director of the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity and vice president of Freedom Partners, a national organization with deep links to Koch Industries that promotes free markets.

He met with Freedom Partners and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during his Washington trip.

Cobb also visited with Kansas Republicans Roberts, Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Ron Estes and had lunch with Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who he worked with on the 2016 campaign.

Cobb is a former campaign consultant for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and remains close with the former Wichita congressman, who has so far resisted national Republicans’ efforts to entice him into the Senate race. He featured prominently when Pompeo visited Johnson County in March for a State Department event centered on entrepreneurship.

Cobb sought to replace Pompeo in the U.S. House in a 2017 special election when the Wichita Republican joined the Trump administration, but he failed to win the GOP nomination at a party convention. However, one GOP strategist said Cobb’s fundraising numbers for that race show he’d be a strong candidate.

“When you raise $150,000 in less than two weeks for a congressional race in Kansas people notice,” said Jared Suhn, a Kansas-based GOP consultant who worked on Moran’s 2016 Senate campaign and has ties to the Koch network.

“Cobb is uniquely positioned as a business outsider and policy leader to nationalize the race and become the conservative standard bearer. He can effectively unite Trump supporters, fiscal, national security and social conservatives in a way others can’t.”

The White House meetings for the three Kansas Republicans suggest that the Trump administration is taking the race seriously and vetting candidates ahead of next year’s crowded primary. The meetings come after months of speculation about Pompeo as a potential candidate and concerns from GOP strategists about a potential run by Kobach, who Trump supported in the 2018 race for governor.

The White House did not immediately comment on the rationale behind the meetings.

Kansas has not elected a Democrat for Senate since 1932 and this is the first open Senate race in the state since Sam Brownback gave up his seat in 2010 to run for governor. The GOP field is expected to be large.

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, Republican Rep. Roger Marshall and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have all met with the NRSC to discuss the race, but LaTurner is the only GOP candidate to officially declare at this point.

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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