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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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A Busy Day After Election Day

There’s a longstanding political tradition in America that the day after an election is blissfully boring, with both sides paying lip service to the will of the people and making phony baloney promises of bipartisan cooperation. President Donald Trump’s newfangled version of conservatism has little regard for longstanding political traditions, though, and even before all the ballots had been fully counted in some very close races he was generating several unavoidable news stores.
Everyone who’s been paying attention to the top-rated Trump reality show knew that soon after the midterm elections he was going to somehow remove and replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but it was still a slight surprise that it happened so suddenly. Trump did observe the longstanding tradition of giving a press conference following a mid-term election, but instead of the traditional humility and happy talk Trump insulted his interlocutors as well as the defeated Republicans who had been insufficiently supportive of his presidency, and vowed that if the soon-to-be-installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives dares use its constitutional power to snoop into Trump’s political and financial dealings he’ll take a “war-like stance.”
The forced resignation of Sessions is an unavoidably big deal, as it’s a major plot twist in the “Russia thing” that is still an unavoidably big deal in the Trump reality show. Sessions was the first Republican Senator with undeniable conservative bona fides to endorse Trump’s anti-establishment take-over of the Republican establishment, and he pursued Trump’s immigration and civil rights and anti-pothead policies more zealously than even Trump himself, but he also committed the unforgivable sin of recusing himself from the whole “Russia thing.” Trump is temporarily replacing Sessions with someone who’s publicly on record in favor of impeding that pesky special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” so what with a soon-to-be-installed Democratic majority in the House that will be an unavoidably big deal in the coming days, even though a slightly-padded Republican majority in the Senate will probably confirm any permanent replacement that Trump might nominate.
There’s a longstanding yet unwritten Justice Department tradition that it not affect politics for at least sixty days before an election, and the old-fashioned establishment Republican running the special counsel investigation of the “Russia thing” rigorously hews to such to-time-honored if unwritten rules, but the subplot was bound to wind up back in the news after some respectful pause from its relentless subpoenas and indictments. Trump has chosen to immediately put the story back at the top of the news cycle, and although he might be shrewdly getting ahead of the current 24-hour-news cycle it remains to be seen how he comes out in the long run.
Based on that combative press conference we’re not at all hopeful that Trump will strike any of his promised great deals with the soon-to-be-installed Democratic majority in the House, and we think Trump is unduly cocky abut his slightly padded slim majority in the Senate, which now includes several members who are there in spite of rather than because of Trump. There are are several Republicans missing from the soon-to-be-installed Democratic majority largely because of Trump, too, including a Democratic seat won by a Native American lesbian kick-boxer here in Kansas, of all places.
Trump also wrote off all those Republicans who weren’t fully obeisant to Trump and tried to stand on their own Republican records,, but he should note that even here in Kansas there aren’t enough of the faithful to elect a governor, no matter how fulsome Trump’s endorsement might be.

— Bud Norman