When U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said on Jan. 4 he will retire, the announcement set off a scramble among prominent Kansas Republicans interested in running for his seat in 2020.
The interest is likely still there. But a lengthy list of potential candidates, operatives and donors may not be racing to firm up plans with the same speed because of the lingering possibility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will enter the race.
Pompeo, a former CIA director and Kansas congressman, sought to tamp down speculation that he will run, saying last week that he plans to lead the State Department as long as President Trump is committed to him.
That’s something less than a rock-solid declaration of non-interest.
“Pompeo is the big wet blanket on possible campaigns. He needs to fish or cut bait in Kansas,” Rob Mealy, a lobbyist who’s been involved in Kansas politics for more than 20 years, wrote on Twitter after Pompeo deflected questions about a possible run during a Fox News interview Wednesday.
Pompeo appeared to edge away from a run during the interview, saying his job as secretary of state is his “singular focus.” But he acknowledged that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had asked him to think about a run. Pompeo in recent days also met with Republican strategist Ward Baker.
He could wait for more than a year to make up his mind. The filing deadline isn’t until June 2020.
So far, only Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner has declared his candidacy. But at least a half-dozen other possible candidates are considering a run, including Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, former Gov. Jeff Colyer and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, who also considering a run, said Thursday he hopes Pompeo enters the race, saying he would be the “strongest and best” candidate.
Cobb acknowledged that as long as Pompeo remains a potential candidate, donors may stay on the sidelines. Cobb said that if he were a donor, he would want to be “thoughtful and deliberative, and not make a quick decision.”
Some Republicans say a Pompeo candidacy may help the party avoid a drawn-out primary that produces a weak general-election candidate. Last year Kansas Republicans went through such a contest in the governor’s race between Kobach and Colyer. Kobach won by just 345 votes and went on to lose the November general election.
J.R. Claeys, the state representative who managed Kobach’s campaign, said that “if Pompeo is out, Kris Kobach is the early front runner should he get into the race and has a message that plays on the national stage.”
One Kansas Republican consultant said Pompeo’s Fox News interview may actually accelerate the process of candidates getting in the race. While he didn’t didn’t definitively rule out a run, he made clear he is not jumping in soon.
If a candidate can prove viability, Pompeo may stay out, this person said. If no one demonstrates command of the race, then Pompeo may reconsider.
“I’ve heard more activity in the last 12 hours than the last week and a half from potential candidates ... I think last night bought everybody three to four fundraising quarters to demonstrate credibility,” the consultant said the day after Pompeo’s Fox interview.
Senate races can be expensive. In 2014, Roberts spent $8.1 million to beat back a primary challenge from Republican Milton Wolf and defeat independent Greg Orman in the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.
Pompeo continues to hold about $1 million in a dormant federal campaign account.
Colyer said in an email that there are “very few who have demonstrated real experience, leadership and trust. Fewer still could run a multi-million dollar, statewide campaign where the Dems throw everything at you. Secretary Pompeo would be one of those few.”
No Democrat has entered the race yet, but former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom is weighing a run. Former congressional candidate James Thompson has also said he is considering.
In addition, journalist and author Sarah Smarsh tweeted Tuesday that “I’m exploring, through conversations with people in high places and low places and with my own heart.” A week earlier, she said in an interview that she was focused on her work as a writer and speaker.
Kansas Democratic Party director Ethan Corson rejected the idea that Pompeo would be a shoo-in, citing backlash to the State Department’s weak response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime.
“I’m not sure which Kansans Mitch McConnell is talking to, but when I talk to Kansans they don’t seem to think coddling Middle Eastern dictators who murder U.S. residents is a Kansas value,” Corson said.
It’s a “big assumption” that Pompeo would clear the field of candidates if he ran, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
Pompeo’s time as CIA director and as a Kansas congressman certainly raised his profile and could help make him a big contender, Miller said, “but he’s not one of those people where that if he jumps in he becomes that person who everyone is going to defer to.”
In some states it’s expected that there are certain names who, if they run, others will defer to them, he said.
“I don’t hear that kind of talk in Kansas politics,” Miller said. “If a Senate seat opens up, it’s expected we’d have a big field and a competitive primary.”
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of McClatchy DC