Politics & Government

Kansas Republicans size up potential U.S. Senate candidates, asking: Can they win?

Kansas GOP gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach (left) shook hands with Gov. Jeff Colyer during an event to show unity between the candidates after a close primary race in August.
Kansas GOP gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach (left) shook hands with Gov. Jeff Colyer during an event to show unity between the candidates after a close primary race in August. blowry@kcstar.com

After losing to Democrats in the governor’s race, Kansas Republicans have a simple message to would-be U.S. Senate candidates: You need to be able to win.

Party loyalists began sizing up potential candidates to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts in 2020 at the state party’s annual convention in Topeka this weekend. Chief among their concerns is selecting a candidate with an unquestioned ability to beat any Democrat.

Kansas Republicans have held onto the state’s Senate seats for decades. But some fear weakness in the general election if the party goes through a bruising primary battle like it did last year in the race for governor.

In that contest, Kris Kobach prevailed over then-Gov. Jeff Colyer by some 343 votes in a GOP field that included five other candidates. But he went on to lose to Democrat Laura Kelly, 48 percent to 43 percent.

A candidate with a core base of voters may be able to win a crowded primary election with five or more candidates, but then prove unable to expand their support in the general election, said Kelly Arnold, the departing chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. He was replaced Saturday by Michael Kuckelman, an Overland Park attorney who didn’t face opposition in the race for chairman.

“I think that’s what people are concerned with,” Arnold said. “That’s why we need to make sure any of our candidates that actually do run are candidates that are electable in the general election.”

“I know there’s some concern in the Senate, specifically from some of the national people, that we could have the same scenario like we did with the governor’s race. … But I don’t think it’s going to be the same for the Senate race.”

Arnold said the names of potential candidates that have emerged “are all candidates we can get behind and make sure we win in that general election.”

So far, only state Treasurer Jake LaTurner has formally entered the race. But Rep. Roger Marshall, state Senate President Susan Wagle, Kansas Chamber of Commerce CEO Alan Cobb, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, Colyer and Kobach are considering campaigns.

If just a few of them jump in, the party could have quite a fight. The list leaves the potential for a Colyer-Kobach rematch, among other scenarios.

Kuckelman told Republicans after his election that he would focus on party unity and messaging. Without referring to any specific race or election, he said that while he has no objection to disagreement, he wants solutions to come from them.

“Just having disagreements to have disagreements doesn’t do anything for our party. But we can sure talk through the issues – we can treat each other with dignity and respect like we should and come up with the best solution to take this party forward and make it even stronger than it is now,” Kuckelman said.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination for Senate needs an inclusive message, said state Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican. And the party needs to overcome its divisions, she said, adding that fighting has been “very harmful to our party.”

“Unwilling to really have a conversation. Unwilling to seek to understand rather than to be understood. That’s what the problem is,” Lynn said.

“The other side” has great messaging, Lynn acknowledged, adding that messaging is something that Republicans have not been able to do effectively.

“I think it’s because we are so disparate in all of our factions and we have no strong leader,” Lynn said.

Some Republicans think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could be that leader if he runs.

The former Kansas congressman turned CIA director turned top American diplomat has tried to tamp down on speculation even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to recruit him. If he ran, Pompeo would likely be an instant frontrunner and could potentially keep other candidates out of the race.

Sen. Jerry Moran said he has spoken to Pompeo about a potential candidacy and other issues. He said he told Pompeo that after their call he was headed into a Lyons Club pancake feed and an Eagle Scout ceremony.

“What have you been doing in the last week?” Moran said he asked Pompeo. “There is such a difference between the aspects of being a United States senator from Kansas and being the secretary of state. I don’t how he will evaluate that but he certainly is being courted and did not express to me anything but a willingness to continue considering that race.”

LaTurner said a Pompeo candidacy would likely clear the field, and said that he would take another look at his own candidacy if that happened.

“My big objective is to make sure we have someone who is a conservative fighter in the U.S. Senate,” LaTurner said. “Mike Pompeo would be that. He checks that box for sure.”

But Pompeo could wait a year or more before making a final decision. Meanwhile, candidates and would-be candidates will eventually need to move forward.

That includes LaTurner, who has met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in recent weeks. Marshall has also met with the NRSC chairman recently.

On Friday, Kobach said he is still seriously considering a run. Earlier in the week he attended a rally in Washington, D.C. with families of individuals killed by people in the county illegally.

Colyer on Saturday helped rally Republicans during a convention meeting with a “go, fight, win” message. In an interview, he said he doesn’t have a timeline for making a decision on a run.

“A bunch of people want to put you in one. You’ve got to do it right,” Colyer said.

Schmidt, who has children in eighth and ninth grade, said family factors would be predominant in his decision whether to run.

President Donald Trump’s first White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, urged Republicans to come together after primaries. Spicer headlined a breakfast event at the convention Saturday.

“At the end of the day, fight it out in the primary. And then once you have somebody, get behind them and focus,” Spicer said.

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said he hopes that by the time of the primary election, in August 2020, there will be only two or three candidates.

“The thing I hope that happens in this campaign – and we still have a long ways to go – is that we don’t have five, six, seven candidates like we did. That makes it very difficult,” Hawkins said.

Moran indicated it’s not always possible to avoid a multi-candidate primary, but said from a party perspective “you want those primary races to be run in a way that doesn’t leave everyone mad at each other and unable to rally around the winner of the primary.”

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.