Politics & Government

Phone poll pits lobbyist with Trump ties against Kansas congressman for Senate race

Matt and Mercedes Schlapp: He is chairman of the American Conservative Union, and she is director of strategic communications at the White House, at home in Alexandria, Va., April 5, 2018. The couple are the most visible in the city’s cadre of conservative Republicans who, faced with a populist Trump juggernaut, chose to scramble aboard.
Matt and Mercedes Schlapp: He is chairman of the American Conservative Union, and she is director of strategic communications at the White House, at home in Alexandria, Va., April 5, 2018. The couple are the most visible in the city’s cadre of conservative Republicans who, faced with a populist Trump juggernaut, chose to scramble aboard. The New York Times

An anonymous telephone poll has been asking Kansas GOP voters whether they would back a prominent lobbyist with ties to President Donald Trump over a western Kansas congressman in next year’s primary for an open Senate seat.

But Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and husband of a White House senior staffer, said he had no involvement in a phone poll testing his name against Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, in a potential 2020 Senate primary.

Schlapp, 51, said that he was unaware of the poll before being contacted by The Star.

“I can tell you it’s not my poll,” Schlapp said in a phone call Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean I’m uninterested in the race.”

The Wichita native previously said that he would decide whether to run for Senate in Kansas after the American Conservative Union wrapped up its annual CPAC Conference in March, an event which featured a two-hour speech from Trump on its final day.

Three months later, Schlapp still hasn’t made his final decision about the race, but said he’s watching closely to see if a conservative standard-bearer emerges for the GOP. If that doesn’t happen, he might pursue a run.

His wife, Mercedes Schlapp, serves as the president’s director of strategic communication, which Schlapp said could complicate his decision to run. The New York Times called the pair “Washington’s Trump-era ‘It Couple’” last year.

“It might not be the most opportune time for my family,” Schlapp said.

The White House did not comment on the possibility that a staffer’s spouse could run for Senate.

The phone poll notes Mercedes Schlapp’s position when testing whether voters would support her husband over Marshall, according to audio obtained by The Star. The audio does not identify who paid for the robo-call poll.

The poll first asks respondents to choose between Schlapp and Marshall based on recognition of their names. It then asks the questions again after providing a description of each potential candidate.

“Matt Schlapp is a native Kansan and a leading conservative voice, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, one of the strongest defenders of President Trump and his wife is a senior staffer for President Trump. Schlapp is a Fox News political contributor and has consistently publicly defended President Trump from attacks,” the poll states.

“Schlapp is a conservative lobbyist who has pushed Congress to pass key parts of President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda.”

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Marshall, 58, is described as “a congressman and OB-GYN who delivered more than 5,000 babies in western Kansas over 25 years.” The poll notes his support for Trump’s tax cuts, role on the House Agriculture Committee and role in crafting last year’s farm bill.

Marshall represents the “Big First,” a sprawling district that covers more than half of the state’s geography and has served as a launching pad for multiple senators, including Kansas GOP icon Bob Dole.

Marshall hasn’t declared for the race, but he appears to be gearing up for a run as his House campaign has outraised Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, the only declared GOP candidate.

“Dr. Marshall and his wife are still in decision-making process, and he’s knee deep in work trying get the Democrats to bring the President’s USMCA trade deal to the floor for approval,” said Eric Pahls, Marshall’s spokesman.

“But he’s flattered by the poll questions and concern,” Pahls added.

LaTurner was not included in the phone poll. In addition to LaTurner and Marshall, a long list of prominent Republicans are also weighing runs for the seat, including Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, former Gov. Jeff Colyer and former Secretary of State Kris Kobach among others.

Schlapp speculated the poll was either paid for by someone seeking to keep him out of the race or by someone who might want him to run.

He has been one of the most prominent critics of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by the president.

Schlapp called the investigation one of the “most disgraceful chapters in American legal history,” and criticized Mueller’s recent news conference in which the special counsel said his office did not find evidence to definitively say the president did not commit a crime.

He began his political career as a staffer for Wichita Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt in the 1990s.

Schlapp went on to work in the White House under President George W. Bush and as a lobbyist for Wichita-based Koch Industries before launching his own lobbying and consulting business, Cove Strategies, in 2009.

His lobbying work has been the source of scrutiny because of his wife’s White House position.

Politico noted last year that his firm raked in $1 million in lobbying revenue during the first year of Trump’s presidency compared to $640,000 the year before. And Democrats cried foul last month when Trump went on Twitter to rail against an obscure bipartisan casino bill that Schlapp had been lobbying against on behalf of a client.

“The reason people know of my lobbying activities is because I very carefully follow the law,” Schlapp said. He said he’d be upfront with Kansas voters about his lobbying work if he runs.

Schlapp currently lives in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, but he insisted in March that if he runs he would not face questions about his residency, an issue that plagued retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, throughout his final Senate campaign in 2014.

“I’m a homeowner in Wichita, so that’s not really an issue,” Schlapp said at the time. “But there’s no question— logistically, I’ve been living the swamp, battling in the swamp. But I feel such a close kinship to Wichita, where I grew up, where my family is and I’ve always loved the concept of getting back there and living there.”

There are no properties in Wichita currently listed under Schlapp’s name, but he controls a limited liability company that has an ownership stake in the Wichita house where his mother, former Wichita Vice Mayor Sue Schlapp, resides, according to Sedgwick County and state records.

Schlapp confirmed Tuesday that his mother’s house is the Wichita home he is referencing when he calls himself a homeowner.

“I’ve been involved in politics my whole adult life,” Schlapp said in March about his interest in the race

“I’ve recruited lots of candidates to run for the Senate. I know what the job is. I know how grueling those campaigns are. You know a lot of people run and they don’t know how tough it’s going to be. I’m very aware of how tough it is.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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