Sen. Pat Roberts fired the starting pistol for what could be a wild U.S. Senate race in Kansas with his announcement Friday that he won’t seek re-election in 2020.
The GOP primary to replace Roberts could pit outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer against Rep. Roger Marshall, who represents Roberts’ old U.S. House seat in “The Big First,” a massive western Kansas district that also produced former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Jerry Moran.
But that’s just the start of the list. Open senate seats are a rare political opportunity, often a once-in-a-generation chance to join the exclusive 100-member club.
It’s likely to make last year’s heavily contested race for Kansas governor look tame by comparison.
“There’s only two U.S. Senate seats from Kansas. They’re not making anymore,” quipped David Kensinger, a longtime GOP consultant who has previously managed Senate campaigns for both Roberts and Sam Brownback.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is also weighing a run after being elected to a third term as the state’s top law enforcement official in November.
“Our country needs thoughtful, effective conservative voices in the U.S. Senate. AG Schmidt will talk with family, friends and supporters about what Senator Roberts’ retirement means for Kansas’s voice in Washington going forward,” said Schmidt’s spokesman Clint Blaes.
Schmidt worked as an aide to former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kansas, early in his career and served as majority leader of the Kansas Senate before becoming attorney general. He’s also managed to stay popular with both the conservative and moderate factions of the Republican Party in recent years.
Even one of President Donald Trump’s cabinet secretaries has been floated as a candidate.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s name began circulating Friday as a potential entrant before Roberts had officially announced his retirement.
The former Wichita congressman flirted with the idea of challenging Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, in 2016. Pompeo decided against that, but was quickly elevated by Trump to CIA director and later secretary of state.
Sources close to Pompeo said he’s focused on his current role, which puts him fourth in line for the presidency.
“I’m sure that he will be flattered to be mentioned, but I’m also sure that he is focused on doing his job as Secretary of State and ensuring the safety and security of every Kansan,” the source said.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, voiced skepticism that Pompeo would consider giving up his role as the nation’s top diplomat.
“I’d love to have him as our senator, but I think he’s working on bigger projects right now,” Arnold said.
Arnold saw Colyer, Marshall and Schmidt as the most likely candidates for the race.
Other names floating around GOP circles include former Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, who lost his seat to Democrat Sharice Davids, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union who grew up in Wichita, and Ajit Pai, the Kansas native who chairs the Federal Communications Commission, according to Arnold.
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, the first woman to hold that role, may also weigh a run after nearly three decades in the Kansas Legislature. Wagle, a Wichita Republican, briefly considered runs for governor and Congress in 2018.
Marshall, who is now the most senior member of the state’s U.S. House members, is seriously considering the seat, but he’s treading carefully for now as Congress continues to grapple with a government shutdown.
“We’re in no hurry to decide on anything,” said Marshall, who sported a purple Kansas State University tie Friday as a tribute to Roberts, a fellow Wildcat.
“Until we get the funding for the border wall, for border security, that’s my focus,” Marshall said. “I think I was the last congressman to leave before the holiday, the first one back and I’m just going to keep pushing that. That’s my job to do for Kansas right now.”
Colyer has indicated an interest in pursuing the seat after he turns over the the governor’s office to Democrat Laura Kelly this month, but Roberts’ retirement announcement did not prompt Colyer to officially launch a run yet.
“Throughout his time in office, Kansans have been able to rely on Pat Roberts’ expertise, energy, and gravitas,” Colyer said in a statement. “It is essential that our next U.S. Senator bring these same qualities to the job.”
The Johnson County plastic surgeon served as governor for a little less than one year after Sam Brownback joined Trump’s administration, losing the August GOP primary by 345 votes after the president issued a last minute endorsement of his opponent, Kris Kobach.
Kobach, a conservative firebrand and the outgoing Kansas secretary of state, did not return a phone call Friday about whether he might pursue a run after losing to Kelly in the general election.
Lesser-known candidates have also expressed interest. Trey Joy, elected mayor of Smith Center as a 19-year-old in 2009, said on Twitter that he’ll be exploring a campaign.
Another possible entrant is Alan Cobb, the president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and former advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Cobb is considering a campaign after a long career as a behind-the-scenes player. He served as lobbyist for Wichita-based Koch Industries and vice president of Americans For Prosperity.
Scott Paradise, a GOP consultant, warned that the crowded field could elevate a candidate unable to win in the general election, something he says happened in the 2018 race for governor.
“We lost the governor’s mansion because we had too many candidates in the primary, which left us with a divisive nominee that didn’t raise money or work hard enough,” Paradise said in a text message. “It’s important hat doesn’t happen again.”
Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932.
The Kansas Democratic Party sent out a fundraising email immediately after Roberts announced his retirement. But the field of potential candidates remains small at the moment.
Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom is weighing a run and has met with national Democratic Party officials about the possibility.
Grissom praised Roberts Friday for his life of public service – despite their policy differences – and noted that the senator supported his confirmation as U.S. attorney in 2010.
On Friday, Roberts declined to suggest anyone as a possible successor, saying there are “many good candidates in the congressional delegation and outside the congressional delegation.”
He joked that perhaps Bob Dole, the 95-year-old former senator from Kansas, could run again.
“I love Bob. Bob loves me. Just had a conversation about it. He says ‘You’re sure you’re giving this up?’ I said ‘I think so, Bob, I think it’s time. So that means there’s an opening.’ He says ‘I might consider that,’” Roberts said. “So write that down, that Bob Dole might come back and run for the Senate.”