At least eight Kansas Republicans have expressed interest in running for the Senate seat Pat Roberts will be leaving after four terms, but a big cloud hovers over the potential 2020 field as some in the party nudge U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to enter the race.
Pompeo deflected such talk on Wednesday during a television interview on Fox News, declaring that his “singular focus” now is his work as the nation’s top diplomat. But he also stopped short of ruling the idea out.
The interest in Pompeo reflects a desire by some GOP leaders to unify in the Republican-leaning state ahead of what could be a difficult election year nationally for the party.
Democrat Laura Kelly’s victory in the governor’s race last year also factors into Republicans’ thinking. It followed a fractious GOP primary won by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an often-polarizing ally of President Donald Trump who advocates tough immigration and voter ID laws. Kobach is among those considering a Senate run.
Pompeo has a luxury most other potential candidates don’t: far more time to decide. The Kansas filing deadline isn’t until June 2020, but other prospective candidates must start building an organization and raising money before this fall to launch a credible campaign.
“Secretary Pompeo doesn’t need to decide whether he is going to get into this race until the day of (the) filing deadline,” Kelly Arnold, the Kansas Republican Party’s chairman, said before the secretary of state’s latest comments. “He would be not only our nominee but he would win the election.”
Many Republicans agree with Arnold that Pompeo would be a lock to win Roberts’ seat after the 82-year-old senator announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t seek re-election. That prompted an effort by other GOP senators to recruit him. Pompeo said during the Fox News interview that the push included a call from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Pompeo, a former Army officer, represented a Wichita-area district in the House before Trump named him CIA director in 2017. He became a trusted adviser and took over as secretary of state in April 2018 after Trump fired predecessor Rex Tillerson.
Running for the Senate would be an unusual move after holding the most prestigious post in the Cabinet for eight months.
“Lots of folks have reached out to me,” Pompeo said. “I have suggested to them that I have a very full plate as secretary of state, and I intend to keep doing this so long as President Trump will commit to it.”
But open Senate seats in Kansas don’t come along often. Pompeo even considered challenging Kansas’ other senator, Jerry Moran, in 2016.
Republicans were not reading Pompeo’s recent comments as a declaration that he’s out.
“It seems the door was not shut. It’s really not much more complicated than that,” said Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a former Trump campaign official who’s considering the Senate race himself. “I hope Mike Pompeo runs. He would be clearly the strongest and best candidate.”
Pompeo’s support cuts across the GOP’s moderate and conservative wings, and his candidacy would excite donors. As of late November, Pompeo still had nearly $1 million in his congressional campaign account — a good start for a Senate race.
Kansas would seem unlikely to have a Senate seat in play. Republicans have won every one of its Senate races since 1932, and Trump won the state by nearly 21 percentage points in 2016.
But Roberts had both a contentious primary and a tough general election race in 2014, and some Republicans see a warning in Kelly’s victory in the governor’s race. Kobach had narrowly defeated then-Gov. Jeff Colyer in a crowded seven-person GOP primary. The two of them fell just short of 41 percent of the vote and all the others won single-digit percentages.
Both Colyer and Kobach are looking at the Senate race.
Kobach’s critics within the GOP worry that he could emerge again from a crowded Senate primary to create an opening for a long-shot Democrat by alienating moderate Republicans, as he did in the governor’s race. So far, the only Democrat to express an interest in running is Barry Grissom, formerly the chief federal prosecutor for Kansas during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
And plenty of Republicans now argue that Kobach’s campaign for governor was disorganized and did a poor job of fundraising.
“No one should be lining up to do it again,” said David Kensinger, a Colyer adviser who ran successful statewide GOP campaigns in Kansas and was a consultant for Vice President Mike Pence when Pence won the Indiana governor’s race in 2012. “This is not speculation. This is recent history.”
Kobach dismisses the criticism as Monday morning quarterbacking. He noted that Kansas voters have a history over the past half century of alternating between electing Republican and Democratic governors even while sticking with the GOP in Senate races. Moderates tend to be more loyal to the party’s Senate nominee, especially when control of the chamber is in play.
“The issues are different,” Kobach said. “The landscape is different.”
Other Republicans looking at the race include western Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp. State Treasurer Jake LaTurner launched a campaign earlier this month.
“Absent a Mike Pompeo, there really isn’t anyone that’s going to make other people get out of the race, so you’re going to have a free-for-all, which tends to create very difficult and protracted Republican primaries — which, frankly, a lot of us are tired of,” said former GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder, who has joined a lobbying firm after losing his Kansas City-area seat.