Tucked behind a bloc of office suites off a dead-end road in Wichita, Kansas, sit three storage units that house old yard signs, campaign office furniture and other relics of Mike Pompeo’s political past – and clues to his possible future.
More than 1,200 miles away, the U.S. Senate confirmed Pompeo on Thursday as Secretary of State. The 57-42 vote caps a meteoric rise for the 54-year-old Pompeo, who went from a relatively junior member of Congress to fourth in line of succession to the president in little more than a year.
The beige-and-white storage units in Wichita – as well as nearly $1 million earning interest in Pompeo’s still-active campaign account – serve as a reminder that the former Kansas businessman may have powered down his political machine, but he’s keeping it tuned and ready for a potential future run.
To those back in Kansas who’ve monitored Pompeo’s political career, the question isn’t whether he will run again for elected office but when and for which one.
“We have been kidding about wondering if he was getting his presidential campaign in order,” said Jean Schodorf, a one-time Republican primary opponent of Pompeo’s who is now a Democrat.
Pompeo briefly flirted with a run for House speaker in 2015, before Paul Ryan agreed to take the job. In 2016, Pompeo floated a possible run for the Senate against Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a popular incumbent from his own party.
And before his nomination as CIA director in November 2016, Pompeo’s name had been in the mix as a likely 2018 Kansas gubernatorial candidate.
Born in California, Pompeo graduated first in his class at West Point and served as an Army officer during the Cold War, patrolling the Berlin Wall. He studied law at Harvard, helped build aviation supplier Thayer Aerospace and was president of Sentry International, an oil production equipment company.
He won a seat in Congress in 2010 after years in the Wichita business community.
In Congress, Pompeo developed a reputation as a blunt conservative and frequent critic of President Barack Obama’s administration, including pursuing Hillary Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of an American ambassador. Clinton was Secretary of State at the time of the attack.
Pompeo has forged a stable relationship with President Donald Trump even as the president has driven away or fired other top officials.
Some Democrats and American Muslims have taken issue with Pompeo's past comments about Islam. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo said the silence of American Islamic leaders made them “potentially complicit in these acts and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”
Kansas State Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, first met Pompeo before his first run for Congress at a Lions Club event. He called Pompeo a gifted debater and elegant speaker but questioned how his background – an aerospace businessman and Army officer – qualifies him to be the nation’s top diplomat.
Pompeo was a very effective fundraiser in Congress, Carmichael said, so it comes as no surprise that he would maintain a “political life preserver” for his life after the Trump administration.
“If you go to work for the Trump administration just like our former secretary of state … you can be gone in literally a New York minute in this administration,” Carmichael said. “So I wouldn’t fault a man with political aspirations for keeping a storage shed of political paraphernalia in Wichita in case things don’t work out.” Pompeo replaces Rex Tillerson, who stepped down earlier this year.
Mark Kahrs, Kansas’ Republican national committeeman, said Pompeo doesn’t have a lot of diplomatic experience but has been successful in everything he’s done in life. He said it’s a “perfect mix” for Trump to have a secretary of state that shares his view of the world and who largely agrees with him on foreign policy.
Kahrs said he doesn’t know what Pompeo plans after his time as secretary.
“Maybe the U.S. Senate? I don’t know. Maybe a think tank? Who knows? I have no idea what his private ambitions are,” Kahrs said. “I think he plans and hopes to serve this president as secretary of state for the balance of this term and President Trump’s second term, and who knows what follows after that.”
On Jan. 24, 2017, the day after his confirmation as CIA director, Pompeo sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission, notifying officials that he was withdrawing his declaration of candidacy for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District in 2018, which he had submitted on Nov. 13, 2016.
He noted that his committee had refunded all donations that came in after the 2016 election and stated that there had been no expenditures by Pompeo for Kansas in support of a federal election in the 2018 election cycle and there would be no such expenditures during his tenure as CIA director.
“The only anticipated disbursements will be for basic administrative and compliance purposes required for the Committee's maintenance, such as FEC reporting, storage, banking fees, etc,” he wrote.
Federal candidates have no obligation to shut down their campaign committees after leaving office – in fact, many of them keep their committees open, said Judith Ingram, an FEC spokeswoman.
Some candidates have outstanding debts owed by their committees and can’t close them until those debts are repaid. Others turn their campaign committees into political action committees to support other candidates. Missouri Democrat Jason Kander did so after his failed 2016 Senate run against Roy Blunt.
In many cases, candidates keep their committees alive in case they want to run again.
On Wednesday, the FEC announced it would start examining the use of campaign funds by dormant committees starting in July 2018 “to ensure the activity meets the regulatory standards for permissible use.” That means no conversion of campaign funds to personal use.
The review applies to committees of former candidates such as Pompeo who did not campaign or hold office during the previous two years for House candidates or four years for Senate and presidential candidates.
The FEC’s announcement comes after recent scrutiny of so-called zombie committees, some of which continue to spend campaign cash on questionable expenses long after candidates leave elected office.
“Campaign funds are supposed to be used to support a candidate’s campaign or their duties as a member of Congress," said Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog. "Once an office holder no longer holds office or is no longer in Congress, it becomes much harder to justify campaign expenditures."
Among the expenses by Pompeo’s committee that Fischer’s organization flagged as questionable were $443 to Amtrak for "Train Tickets" on Nov 15, the day before Pompeo met with then-President-elect Trump at Trump Tower, and $1,137.60 to Delta for "Travel-Airfare" on Nov 18, the day Trump announced his choice of Pompeo for CIA director.
It would be impermissible for Pompeo to use campaign funds to secure his nomination as CIA director, Fischer said.
But generally speaking, he said, Pompeo appears to be using his campaign funds for permissible expenses such as storage, taxes or compliance paperwork. That’s in contrast with a number of other former candidates who’ve made headlines for using “zombie” campaign funds for country club dues and cellphone bills.
Pompeo’s committee has no staff. After McClatchy sent questions about the committee’s spending to the White House, a reporter was contacted by a person who identified himself as associated with the Pompeo campaign. He requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak in an official capacity.
He said every expense by the campaign “is appropriate, legal and allowed under campaign law,” such as dinner for campaign workers to thank them or storage for campaign materials in Wichita.
The travel to New York to meet the president, said the person associated with Pompeo’s campaign, was appropriate under election law because Pompeo was a sitting congressman at the time and was not yet nominated.
Asked whether Pompeo knew he was going to Trump Tower for an interview, the person said, “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Pompeo’s decision to keep his campaign committee open “is about keeping your options open,” he said. “Who knows what the future will hold?”
Federal rules would allow Pompeo to roll over the remaining million dollars in his House campaign fund to seed a Senate campaign or even a presidential bid.
He would be prohibited, however, from transferring funds from his federal campaign to a state campaign committee. Mark Skoglund, director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, said such transfers are not allowed under state law.
Pompeo could come back to Kansas after his time as secretary and again seek elected office, said Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University in Wichita.
But Fox believes Pompeo will opt to stay in and around Washington.
“I think he’s going to stay close to the heart of the national power base,” he said.
The campaign funds Pompeo keeps stockpiled is a good “fail safe” and a type of insurance, Fox said.
“I think he’s going to hold on to that money. I think he’s going to stay in contact with Republican donors, I think he’s going to stay in contact with his friends in Congress,” Fox said.
“But for now, I think he is seeing a path open to him to interact with the highest levels of the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., and he is going to make use of that, first and foremost.”