(CNN) - Republicans shouldn't have to worry about a Senate race in Kansas.
The last time the state sent a Democrat to the upper chamber of Congress, the country chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president in 1932, giving Kansas the longest streak of Republican Senate dominance in the country. In fact, in the 158 years since Kansas became a state, only three Democrats have been elected to serve in the Senate for a combined total of 16 years.
But with the looming retirement of veteran Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas has suddenly become a cause for concern within the GOP establishment. Its worry is that the party will nominate Kris Kobach, an anti-illegal immigration firebrand and voter-fraud crusader who lost the governor's race last year only to turn around and announce his candidacy for Senate in July.
In interviews, multiple Republican political operatives from Washington to Wichita say they fear a rerun of last year, when Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State and state party chairman, narrowly won a crowded primary and then lost the governor's race to then-Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly, who secured the endorsements of high-profile moderate Republicans.
The state's elections in 2018 weren't just an indictment of Kobach. They were also seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump and the legacy of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, whose unprecedented tax cuts led to a budget shortfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Democrats didn't just flip the governor's residence, they also broke the state's entirely Republican congressional delegation, winning one of four Kansas House seats and coming close in another conservative district.
In August, the retiring Roberts told CNN he didn't know if Kansas was "deep red anymore" and wondered if it's now "maybe purple."
"There is a concern" that a primary with half a dozen Senate Republican candidates would hand it to Kobach, acknowledged Roberts, adding "there's quite a bit of feeling" that Kobach's last campaign "was not a very good race."
Pining for Pompeo
Since Republicans took back the Senate in the 2014 election, majority leader Mitch McConnell has aggressively recruited who he believes are the most electable candidates. In the case of Kansas, he has sought an extraordinary salvation: a run by former Kansas congressman and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On September 3, McConnell reiterated on conservative host Hugh Hewitt's radio show that Pompeo is his "first choice." A few days later, Pompeo told the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star that he wants to serve the president as long as Trump wants him to be Secretary of State, adding to take his response "however you'd like."
The conjecture follows him wherever he goes. On Friday night, during a question and answer session at the House Republican retreat in Baltimore, a member of Congress began a question to Pompeo by saying they would specifically not ask about a Senate run, according to a source present. Pompeo laughed and said that would've been alright, before continuing to talk about China and Russia.
For months, anti-Kobach Republican donors and strategists have pined over the prospects of Pompeo, who they consider to be the only one who can pacify the party and clear a growing field of candidates. Besides Kobach, Rep. Roger Marshall, State Senate President Susan Wagle and former Kansas City Chiefs player and businessman Dave Lindstrom are running in the party's primary. Others are also considering campaigns.
"In a multi-candidate field without Mike Pompeo, Kobach is likely to win" the primary, said David Kensinger, a Republican strategist who managed successful statewide campaigns for Roberts and Brownback. Any other Republican candidate would be a "strong favorite" to win the general election, he added, while "Kobach would be, at best, a severe risk."
Politicos have searched Pompeo's every word and move for clues to his political future. Some pour over his interviews. Others evaluate who he selects as the interviewer. One Kansas GOP operative told CNN that Pompeo's interviews with conservative host Pete Mundo were interpreted as a "clear sign" that the secretary of state is interested in running for Senate, since going on his show is a "rite of passage" for Republican candidates seeking statewide office.
They get especially excited upon learning of his trips back home to Kansas, only to be disappointed when they turn out to be not particularly political, like his excursion to IHOP to celebrate his mother-in-law's birthday.
It was no surprise then that Pompeo's return to Kansas last week to give a lecture on human rights at Kansas State University was greeted with anticipation and intrigue. Pompeo wore a tie with the school's signature purple and exuded the easy manner of a savvy politician. With state officials and mega donors in the audience, the Senate race wasn't far from anyone's mind.
At the conclusion of his speech, Pompeo said to knowing laughter, "I look forward to taking questions on almost any topic today."
The polite crowd complied, asking substantive questions on Iran, abortion, climate change, and immigration. But afterwards some seemed a little disappointed at the entirely sober discussion.
"We're all anxious to hear from him and say if he's going to decide to throw his hat in the ring for the US Senate," Kansas House Assistant Majority Leader Tom Phillips told CNN.
"He was kind of quiet on that topic," he added.
Keeping his cards close
In response to all the attention, Pompeo has repeatedly said he's focused on his job, but he's well aware of all of the speculation. In July at the Kansas Society Dinner in Washington, DC, Pompeo felt obligated to address it with a joke, according to three attendees.
"As of now, Senator Roberts nor I are running for Senate," he said.
Going from the country's chief diplomat to the Senate is an unheard of career move, but it would provide him with another high-profile position, setting up an even longer career in public service and potentially a platform from which to run for president.
Pompeo currently enjoys enormous influence inside the Trump administration and is widely seen as the Cabinet member closest to the President. He is a source of stability for an administration that is seemingly in a constant state of chaos. Pompeo's position was only reinforced by Tuesday's departure of national security adviser John Bolton. The relationship between Bolton and Pompeo had grown so tense lately that the two rarely spoke to each other outside formal meetings.
Still, people close to Pompeo have said a Senate campaign is on the table. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
In interviews with CNN, some top officials in Kansas said they thought Pompeo is seriously considering it. Former Republican governor Jeff Colyer said, "I know he's looking at it," calling a run a "distinct possibility." Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, is waiting for his friend Pompeo to make his decision before deciding whether to run himself. Cobb said he'll "probably" make his decision in the next thirty days.
Pompeo has months to make up his mind; the state's filing deadline isn't until June.
The field without Pompeo
If Pompeo doesn't run, the primary could come down to Kobach and Roger Marshall, a Congressman representing the "Big First" district in the central and western parts of the state.
While they're both Republicans, the contrast between them is quite stark. Kobach's focus is on illegal immigration; Marshall's is on agriculture. Kobach would pressure a resistant Congress to build Trump's wall. Marshall would take on the White House for its trade war with China, which announced in August it would halt its purchases of US agricultural products in response to Trump's tariffs. Kobach wants to serve on the Senate Judiciary committee; Marshall has pledged to continue the decades-long tradition of having a Kansan on the Senate Agriculture committee.
On September 7, a day after Pompeo's K-State speech, Marshall announced his bid for Senate at the annual state fair, next to his wife Laina and in front of a giant American flag. Marshall decried socialism and the so-called "Squad" of progressive congresswomen in Washington, DC, pledging to not let them "ruin" the agricultural and oil industries with the Green New Deal.
While he ticked off the typical party positions, including his support for building Trump's wall, Marshall portrayed himself the heir to a "pragmatic" brand of Kansas Republican. He quoted former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, mentioned his boyhood hero was former president and Kansan Dwight Eisenhower, and committed to be "a voice for Kansas agriculture" like Roberts, who chaired both the House and Senate Agriculture committees.
The strongest argument for Marshall's bid is historical, as a protector of his state's economic interests rather than an agitator.
Marshall now represents the same solidly Republican district from which Dole, Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran built the base of their power. He hasn't served as long as they did, though he displays a strong personal connection to some in his district.
After Marshall's campaign kickoff, one supporter explained why he supported the Congressman, an obstetrician-gynecologist, for Senate. "First and foremost, he delivered my children," he said.
And then there's Kobach
A couple hours later and a couple miles away from the hubbub of the state fair, Kobach sat at Carl's Bar, eating a burger while dispassionately explaining why he thinks some Republicans don't like him.
"There is a well-entrenched political establishment in Kansas, a class that has controlled the Republican party for a long time," Kobach said. "They don't have as tight a control on the party anymore."
He told CNN he's running for three reasons: to "carry the ball" for President Trump on immigration, confirm conservative judges and reduce the size of government, for which he blames both parties.
"Right now, there really isn't a go-to person in the US Senate who leads the charge on the pro-enforcement side of the illegal immigration issue," said Kobach.
He thinks this run will be more successful than his last, pointing to the state's history of electing both Democrats and Republicans as governors while only sending Republicans to the Senate.
Kobach helped write a controversial 2010 Arizona law that allowed police officers to stop people and demand proof of citizenship if they suspected the detainees were illegally in the country. In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down several aspects of it but left that core provision standing. As Kansas Secretary of State, Kobach advocated for a state law still mired in court that required people to show citizenship papers to register to vote.
In 2017, Trump chose Kobach to lead a voter integrity commission, which disbanded without finding any evidence of widespread voter fraud. He has since worked with We Build the Wall, a non-profit advocacy group that claims to have raised $25 million to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Kobach has energized grassroots conservative Kansans throughout his career, but his polarizing nature was on full display in the 2018 governor's race. He won his party's nomination by only 343 votes over the sitting governor Colyer, and then lost to Kelly by five points. While Kobach "still has a strong base of support," it has somewhat weakened since November, said John Whitmer, a Kansas radio host and former state legislator who backed Kobach during that run.
"There's a stigma of someone who lost a race," added Whitmer.
Marshall is expected to have a fundraising advantage. In 2018, Kobach relied upon the millions his lieutenant governor candidate, Wink Hartman, was willing to spend and Marshall has already reported $1.4 million on hand. But this time, the Kobach campaign may benefit from the largesse of conservative outside groups, particularly the fiscally-focused Club for Growth.
David McIntosh, the group's president, told CNN that it's his hope, "like everybody else," that Pompeo enters the race. But if he doesn't, McIntosh said he could see the group's Super PAC spending "well into the seven figures" opposing Marshall.
"We're very interested in the Kansas Senate race and view it as an opportunity to get a real economic conservative in there," said McIntosh. "Our view on Marshall is that he's not one."
McIntosh pointed to the group's scorecard, which shows Marshall voting in support of the Farm Bill, the national flood insurance program, ethanol subsidies and government spending bills the Club for Growth opposed. Marshall has responded to that critique by noting that he votes with President Trump 98% of the time.
Of course, other outside groups may align against Kobach.
"Given the result of the gubernatorial race last year, it's imperative we put our best foot forward in Kansas," said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned Super PAC. "We haven't ruled anything out to ensure this seat stays in Republican hands."
The Trump factor
Another variable in the race is a presidential endorsement. In his 2018 gubernatorial race, Kobach received Trump's blessing a day before the primary, but it's unclear whether the President will give it again. Kobach told CNN that he hasn't asked the President for his endorsement, but said that Trump has been "very encouraging" about his run.
While he recognized that Pompeo could imperil his bid, Kobach said he intended to continue running, "unless something happened that changed the calculations and the landscape dramatically" like polling that suggested Pompeo "was running away with it."
In interviews with Kansas Republicans at the state fair on a dirt road connecting the chainsaw artist to the pig race, some questioned why Pompeo would make the move from Secretary of State to senator. None mentioned the names of the current or potential Democratic candidates—former US Attorney Barry Grissom, former US Rep. Nancy Boyda and state Sen. Barbara Bollier—or said they were a particular threat.
Yet the theory for recruiting him was validated by Mandy Burmeister, a homemaker, and Gary White, a farmer, who respectively supported Kelly and Kobach for governor in 2018.
Both said they'd likely support Pompeo if he ran for Senate in 2020, drawn by his personality and credentials.
"He graduated first in his class at West Point," said White. "That's good enough, isn't it?"
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