Elections

Wagle run for Congress would mean primary challenge for Estes

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Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita speaks on the floor of the Senate in February in Topeka.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita speaks on the floor of the Senate in February in Topeka. File photo

Senate President Susan Wagle is considering a run for Congress, three Republicans close to her say.

A decision by Wagle, R-Wichita, to run next year would mean a primary challenge for Ron Estes, who won Tuesday’s special election to fill the 4th Congressional District seat.

Estes won by 7 percentage points over Democrat James Thompson. It was the smallest margin of victory for a Republican in the district in more than a decade. Mike Pompeo won re-election to the seat by 30 points in November before leaving to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Republican Ron Estes gives his acceptance speech after winning the 4th District congressional race Tuesday night, April 11, 2017, at his watch party at the Marriott Hotel. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle)

“The lack of enthusiasm from Republicans in yesterday’s election was disconcerting. Susan is focused on serving Kansans as Senate president, but will continue to evaluate how she best serves in the future,” said Wagle’s chief of staff, Harrison Hems.

Estes said Wednesday that he hadn’t heard anything about the possibility of a Wagle run. He said he wasn’t thinking about the 2018 campaign yet.

“Right now, I haven’t even been sworn in yet,” Estes said. “I’m focused on doing the job. That’s the big thing right now.”

Wagle has been one of the most powerful Republicans at the Statehouse during a turbulent time for the Legislature. Lawmakers have yet to resolve a projected budget shortfall over the next two years.

Wagle has proven adept so far at navigating shifting attitudes. She was able to maintain her grip on the Senate presidency despite an influx of new, more moderate senators this year.

Wagle has publicly broken with the governor on several occasions. She supports rolling back a tax exemption for certain business income that is favored by Brownback, and she has criticized his budget proposal.

There had been some speculation about whether Wagle would run for governor in 2018. A congressional campaign would foreclose that option.

If Wagle ran against Estes, she would be banking on Estes not being an effective member of the U.S. House, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.

“Incumbency is a powerful tool. Now that he is elected, Estes has the chance to leverage his performance in office such as publicity, casework, interests willing to fund him to solidify his position. It’s hard to beat an incumbent, and even harder to do so in a primary,” Rackaway said.

“So to primary Estes would still be a significant challenge for Wagle.”

Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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