Persistent rumors that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would enter the Kansas Senate race were put to rest Monday with the passing of the state’s deadline for candidates to appear on the Aug. 4 primary ballot.
That leaves former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as the candidate with the biggest star power in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, a situation national Republicans have made no secret of their eagerness to avoid. Democrats hope that Kobach as the GOP nominee will help put the seat in play.
By late last week, Senate Republican leadership had stopped actively recruiting Pompeo, a strategist told CQ Roll Call. That was a shift from even a few weeks ago, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico that Pompeo remained his “first choice” for the seat.
Kobach, who in 2017 served as vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, has a reputation as a firebrand who can easily win in a primary but can also turn off the independent voters the GOP needs to court in a general election.
He lost the 2018 race for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly, who is frequently compared to the party’s Senate candidate this year, state Sen. Barbara Bollier.
Kobach might have an easier time in 2020, when he will have the advantage of running with Trump on the top of the ticket, and he can focus on national issues he sees as a strong point —he sits on the advisory board of an activist group called We Build a Wall with former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon.
“Conservative Republicans remain united behind my campaign,” Kobach said in a statement.“They are seeing that my opponents are not as conservative as they claim.”
But not everyone is convinced.
“If Kobach does manage to win a primary, then the seat is definitely in play,” longtime Kansas-based GOP consultant David Kensinger said. “Anyone who thinks he can’t blow a seat is whistling past a graveyard,”
A Democrat hasn’t won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932 — the party’s longest Senate drought in the country — and a Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Kansas also voted for Trump by 21 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race Lean Republican.
Kansas GOP leaders had sought in recent weeks to get several Senate candidates to drop their bids so party voters could consolidate around Kobach and Rep. Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN who has tried to rally national support. State Senate President Susan Wagle dropped out last week. But Dave Lindstrom, a businessman and former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end, and plumbing company owner Bob Hamilton remain in the race.
Marshall has sought in recent weeks to play up his medical background, a potential advantage as the country seeks authoritative responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
He has volunteered at a clinic treating COVID-19 patients, announced that he and his family were taking the same controversial malaria drug as Trump to protect against the virus, and even asked that his name on the ballot include the nickname “Doc.”
Nevertheless, Marshall’s understated personality is considered a weakness.
“That’s a challenge when you are running against Kobach, who is very energetic,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.
Through March 31, Marshall had raised nearly $2.1 million and had $1.9 million on hand. Kobach took in $595,000 and had $317,000 in the bank. Hamilton had nearly $2.2 million on hand, but all but $156,000 of that came from his own pocket. Lindstrom raised $574,000 and had $266,000 in his campaign account.
Some national Republicans told CQ Roll Call in recent weeks that they had been excited about Hamilton, whose long-running advertisements had given him name recognition in the Kansas City suburbs.
But some of that excitement has waned after a disappointing showing at a May 23 debate. At one point, Hamilton conceded that he would not know how to get a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which Roberts currently chairs.
“I don’t care who you are, as an unknown, you cannot overcome that,” Kansas GOP Chairman Michael Kuckelman said.
Niels Lesniewksi contributed to this report.