Kansas Politics Takes a National Stage

Kansas rarely makes the national news, which is fine by us and most other Kansans, as it’s usually something embarrassing, but we were intrigued to see the latest development in our state politics on the front page of The Washington Post. The paper reports that Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come home and run for a Senate seat that’s recently opened up, which is pretty darned intriguing for a number of reasons.
The Senate seats for Kansas are rarely open, as Kansans pragmatically tend to reelect the Republicans with the seniority and significant committee assignments needed to protect the farmers and airplane builders and natural gas drillers and other key components of the state’s economy, but 2020 will be one of those occasions. At the relatively young of age 82 Sen. Pat Roberts has decided to end a locally legendary political career that started way back in the ’60s — that’s the 1960s, although it sometimes seems to have stretched back to the “Bleeding Kansas” days of the 1860s — and there’s already a crowded field of notable Republicans vying to succeed him.
The rumored candidates include former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hard-liner who made a failed effort to prove that at least three million illegal voters robbed President Donald Trump of a popular vote victory in the last presidential election, and wound up losing the last Kansas governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. There’s also former Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took office after wildly unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback resigned to became President Donald Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom, whatever that is, and then lost the Republican gubernatorial nomination by a few hundred votes but probably would have the general election if he’d been nominated. Another frequently mentioned name is Matt Schlapp, who used to be an aide to long-forgotten Fourth District Rep. Todd Tiahrt and has since gained a high profile on Fox News and talk radio as the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and whose wife, Mercedes, is Trump’s director of strategic communications, whatever that is. Such well-regarded state legislators as Rep. Roger Marshall are also reportedly in the running.
Despite such a formidable field, the Republican nomination would be Pompeo’s for the asking, and given that the only time Kansas has ever elected a Democrat to the Senate was for one term back in the Great Depression, the general election would be easy. He’s a first-in-his-class graduate of West Point, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a successful entrepreneur in Wichita’s high-tech aerospace industry, and after Tiahrt abandoned his Fourth Congressional seat for an ill-advised and ill-fated Senate run he won four congressional elections by landslide margins. His service as Trump’s director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State have surely endeared him to the Trump-loving sorts of Kansas Republicans, and his occasional differences of opinion with Trump on such important matters as Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election will satisfy the large and growing number of Republicans who are weary of Trump’s generally shoddy character and the endless trade wars that have hard hit the agriculture and aviation sectors and his strange preference for coal over natural gas.
In normal circumstances no savvy politician would rather be a junior Senator from a sparsely populated state rather Secretary of State, but Pompeo is surely savvy enough to know that the Trump administration is not normal circumstances. Pompeo might or might not know what Trump has been saying to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin during the occasional conservations, as Trump keeps it a very closely guarded secret, but in either case Pompeo probably shares our concern it won’t end well. With a presidential resume and presidential ambitions, Pompeo might decide he could make a better run as a centrist junior Senator from Kansas who did his best to warn of Russian meddling and restrain Trump’s worst instincts rather than a hard-line loyalist who went down with the Trump ship.
It’s intriguing, too, that McConnell is urging Pompeo to jump from the Trump ship into the Senate. By all accounts Pompeo is Trump’s most favorite cabinet member, probably because it’s hard for Trump to find lackeys with such excellent credentials, and a third Secretary of State of in four years would be hard for Trump to explain, especially after Trump calling his first choice “dumber than rocks,” so it suggests that McConnell might be hedging his bets on the Trump presidency. The map for the 2020 Senate races is even more unfavorable for the Republicans than 2018 races were for the Democrats, and the way things are going they won’t have any presidential coattails to cling to, and we can’t blame McConnell for being more worried about his status as majority leader than he is about Trump’s presidency. Kansas is a reliably Republican state in federal elections, but last November it elected a Democrat as governor over Trump’s heartily endorsed Republican, and up in the Third District, the sort of well-educated suburban jurisdiction the Republicans been losing ever since Trump took office, they even elected a Native American lesbian kick boxer, so McConnell is probably wise to back to the surest bet.

— Bud Norman

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