Dave Helling

If Kathleen Sebelius won’t run for U.S. Senate in 2020, Kansas Democrats can’t win

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle blasts Democrats

The Wichita Republican joined with other GOP candidates for the Kansas Legislature to share a vision for the future of Kansas. (October 2016)
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The Wichita Republican joined with other GOP candidates for the Kansas Legislature to share a vision for the future of Kansas. (October 2016)

Are Kansas Democrats getting ready to walk away from the 2020 Senate race, handing the seat to the Republican nominee?

That sure looks possible. I’ve reached that conclusion after chatting with a handful of Democrats, who think the party may simply concede the election to the Republicans next year.

Oh, there will be a candidate — unlike in 2014, when the Democratic nominee literally sued to get off the Senate ballot. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom is running, as is former U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda. Three other Democrats have filed papers to run.

None of the candidates has turned heads. Grissom’s time as U.S. attorney will be under intense scrutiny. Boyda’s time in the House left no mark. Most Kansans have likely never heard of either of them.

Nor do they know much about Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier, the Republican-turned-Democrat who is thinking about a campaign. Author Sarah Smarsh is intriguing, but her interest isn’t clear.

After that, the field grows even more desolate.

Some Democrats continue to pine for former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. The one-time Health and Human Services secretary would instantly make the race winnable — in fact, some Republicans think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be a candidate only if Sebelius runs.

Alas, Sebelius isn’t interested. “A hard no,” one close adviser said last week.

Really? Open Senate seats don’t come up very often. Sebelius leaned on Laura Kelly to run for governor. How can Sebelius resist similar pressure now?

And how can Sebelius recruit others to seek a seat she won’t pursue on her own?

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932. If Sebelius is the party’s best chance in 2020 — maybe its only chance — she has a duty to make the race.

At the same time, it’s devastating to think the Democrats’ hopes rest entirely on someone who hasn’t held elective office in more than a decade. Is Kathleen Sebelius really the Democrats’ only viable option? What does that say about the party?

It suggests the Democrats’ bench is pretty sad. The party hasn’t fielded a truly competitive Senate candidate since 1974. The 2020 cycle may continue the trend.

How can a party ask young voters to join when it has failed to compete for a Senate seat in decades? Democrats might as well concede the next cycle to Jerry Moran, or to any Republican on the 2022 ballot.

Some Democrats privately confirm this sad diagnosis. In fact, they’re urging the party to skip the Senate race in 2020, in favor of working and fundraising for state legislative seats. Gov. Kelly needs help in Topeka, they say, not a quixotic effort to send a Democrat not named Sebelius to Washington.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, I guess. Democrats can win if they try — U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids beat an incumbent Republican, for gosh sakes — but a Senate race is, apparently, a bridge too far.

So get ready, Kansas, for Sen. Kris Kobach or Sen. Mike Pompeo, or some other GOP senator. Democrats can’t stop them, and Kathleen Sebelius is a hard no.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.
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