Michael Ryan

With Senate seat at risk, can Kansas GOP afford to let Mike Pompeo sit this one out?

If this were the National Football League we were talking about rather than national security, President Donald Trump would probably do what NFL teams do with their most important unsigned players, which would be to hang the “franchise tag” on Mike Pompeo in order to keep him from leaving.

The secretary of state — partly through attrition, mostly through devotion — has become this president’s franchise player, a mainstay amid the administration’s maelstrom and a steady hand in an unstable world.

The president can hardly afford to lose him.

Similarly, though, Pompeo’s party can ill afford to lose the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Pat Roberts next year.

A rare open U.S. Senate seat’s gravitational pull is always potent. For Pompeo and other Kansas Republicans, the weight of this one is positively crushing, for a number of reasons.

Most important, with the GOP holding only a three-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, every seat is a potential game changer for the two parties and a huge potential swing of the country’s cultural pendulum, especially since the Senate is the portal to the Supreme Court.

That makes the Kansas Senate race one of the most important elections nationwide in 2020, even in one of the country’s most pivotal election years in memory.

The race’s importance to Kansas Republicans looms just as large. Coming off the party’s 2018 loss of the governorship and 3rd Congressional District, the GOP simply can’t fumble away a Senate seat it has held for the past century.

The governorship in Kansas often flips between the two parties. But the loss of Roberts’ seat would be much different. It would signal a Republican Party in retreat in a reliably red state, and would become a signature victory for Democrats nationally. Losing this race is just not an option for Kansas Republicans or the GOP nationally. Period.

That means that, as the Republican Party, you take no risks with this seat. That may mean doing everything possible to get Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, to come home and run.

It’s a plaintive message Democrats in Texas and Colorado have sent to their respective presidential hopefuls, Beto O’Rourke and John Hickenlooper.

The latter may have heard that clarion call, in addition to seeing the polls, and has already ended his bid for the White House. Hickenlooper, writes The Colorado Sun, is “already reshaping the 2020 race” for Senate there.

“Come home,” The Houston Chronicle has likewise exhorted O’Rourke in an editorial. “Drop out of the race for president and come back to Texas to run for senator.”

Pompeo can do more than reshape his adopted state’s Senate race: He can give the jumbled field its first real shape at all. More importantly, he can quiet growing concerns among Republicans that their 2018 failed gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach’s populist snake oil might intoxicate enough voters to hand him another dead-end nomination.

As The Star editorialized last month, this Senate race should be Republicans’ to lose — and with Kobach as the nominee, they just might do it.

That’s why party functionaries are trying to cull the Senate primary herd — most conspicuously by convincing state Treasurer Jake LaTurner to get out of that race and take on underperforming and vulnerable 2nd Congressional District Rep. Steve Watkins in the primary.

As first in his class at West Point, and after his meteoric rise to 4th District congressman, CIA director and now secretary of state, Pompeo strikes a formidable shadow across the Sunflower State. Even while abroad, the formerly obscure congressman now finds himself the most powerful politician — or politician-to-be — in Kansas. He is the music to the political musical chairs now playing out in Republican politics in the state. Everyone is waiting to see what he will do.

Will he show his cards at Friday’s Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan? As secretary of state, Pompeo has had to remain coy about any ambitions for office. Yet as a Trump Cabinet secretary, his expiration date is both hard to read and easy to imagine. Rather than trust his fate to this president’s fickle fortunes, Pompeo might want to set out to find his own. And maybe help his party the way he’s helped his president.

As a citizen, it makes me nervous to suggest that Mike Pompeo should leave as secretary of state with so much on his plate and so much at stake. But those of us who desperately want secure borders, constitutionalist courts and minimalist governance are pining for the clarity he’d bring — particularly as the only clear-cut alternative to Kobach.

Republicans might decide to take their chances with Kobach, and without Pompeo, considering the Democrats’ balsa-wood bench; whom do Kansas Democrats have, after all, beyond a recalcitrant Kathleen Sebelius?

Still, the question is, what is the Kansas GOP’s risk tolerance for this seat?

It needs to be absolute zero.