Politics & Government

Wagle vs. Sebelius 2020? Wagle worries ex-governor ‘will be recruited’ for Senate run

As a half dozen potential candidates weigh bids to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2020, one possible Republican contender is publicly voicing fears that former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will run.

Sebelius has previously said she doesn’t have plans to run for office again. But Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle isn’t convinced.

“I’m worried that Sebelius will be recruited,” said Wagle, a Wichita Republican exploring a bid. “And I think I could hold that seat.”

Wagle faced Sebelius in 2006, when Wagle was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor and Sebelius was seeking a second term as governor. Wagle and Republican nominee Jim Barnett lost to Sebelius by 17 percentage points.

A lot would have to happen before a head-to-head race between two of the most powerful women in the history of Kansas politics. Sebelius would have to throw her hat in the ring. Wagle would have to win what is expected to be a wide-open Republican primary.

Sebelius could not immediately be reached by phone Friday. The former governor and cabinet secretary is close to Gov. Laura Kelly and was a major presence on the campaign trail in 2018, but she told The Kansas City Star at the time that she had no plans to run for office in the future.

“I’m not going to run again for anything myself, but I certainly have no lack of interest in the future of Kansas. I intend to roll up my sleeves and do anything I can to be helpful,” Sebelius said in March 2018.

Sebelius has been heavily involved in Kansas politics in the years since she stepped down as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services in 2014.

She helped spearhead a successful campaign to retain the justices on the Kansas Supreme Court in 2016 and she recruited her longtime friend Kelly into the race for governor in 2018. Sebelius campaigned heavily for both Kelly and Sharice Davids, the Democrat who won Kansas’ 3rd congressional district.

Sebelius’ name has been floated on social media as a possible Senate candidate for months — even before Roberts announced his retirement — but people who know the former governor have cast doubt that that is a serious possibility.

“I’ve heard a couple people wishfully talk about Kathleen. That’s not going to happen,” said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who served in Sebelius’ administration.

“Even though I think she could do it, I see with Kathleen someone who really does value being out of the fray directly. She’s clearly a sounding board for (Gov.-elect) Laura (Kelly). She’s on several corporate boards, which gives her a solid income,” he said. “That’s not a bad life.”

Nominating a woman to replace Roberts could be Democrats’ best hope for winning a Senate seat in Kansas for the first time since 1932, according to EMILY’s List, a group that works to elect progressive women and backed Davids and Kelly in 2018.

“With the election of candidates like Laura Kelly and Sharice Davids, voters in Kansas showed in 2018 that they want more women leading the way at decision-making tables, fighting for policies that are good for women and families,” said Julie McClain Downey, the group’s spokeswoman.

For her part, Wagle hasn’t formally declared her candidacy. Right now she’s pushing tax legislation that Kelly opposes.

But Friday at a Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting, she said she thinks Democrats are going to pour money into the race for Roberts’s seat.

“And I quite frankly believe I could be very gruesome for Kathleen Sebelius,” Wagle said.

Wagle said she’s going to “take a real serious look at” running for the seat after this legislative session. Sessions often end in May or June.

“Right now I’m full to the brim with passing a tax bill and keeping Laura Kelly in her place,” Wagle said.

Wagle has been pushing for legislation to closely align the state with a federal tax overhaul passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump’s in 2017. As president of the state Senate, she created her own tax committee and named herself chair.

The committee advanced the tax bill on Thursday. A debate in the full Senate is expected next week.

Even though Wagle is engaged in a battle over tax policy — and said she’s not willing to compromise on taxes — she said her ability to negotiate and work out problems makes her a good candidate for Roberts’s seat. She said it’s especially important for Republicans to run someone can win the “suburban mom” vote.

“The moms who are working, coming home, cooking meals, and they pick up their kids. We need to put forth a candidate that can hold that seat. . . . I think I could hold that seat,” Wagle said.

“I think I’m very relational to families, to women, and I’ve had a history of being able to negotiate and work out problems,” Wagle said.

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