Politics & Government

‘The Lord will get me to the right place’: Pompeo opens door to future Kansas run

When Mike Pompeo thinks about what’s next, he thinks about Kansas.

He’s ruled out a U.S. Senate run in 2020. But on the eve of Pompeo’s first official visit to Kansas since his meteoric rise from congressman to secretary of state, the Wichita Republican propped open the door to a political future in his home state.

“I try to just avoid ruling things out when there’s others who are in control,” Pompeo said. “The Lord will get me to the right place.”

Republicans in the state think that means one of two things — a bid for Senate or the governor’s mansion in 2022. That is, if Pompeo doesn’t decide to run for president in 2024 instead.

He’d be well placed for a run in Kansas. One internal Republican poll from January showed Pompeo beating any potential GOP rival statewide by double digits. And he’s sitting on nearly $1 million in his dormant federal campaign committee.

“It’s a terrible quandary because he may well be the strongest and most capable cabinet member Trump has,” said Fred Berry, Pompeo’s former campaign co-chair, who says he wants Pompeo to run.

“He won’t be there forever.”

For the first time since he joined the Trump administration, Pompeo sat down with McClatchy’s Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle this week for an interview that touched on everything from the State Department budget to Shockers basketball — and how he’d love to move back to Kansas one day.

He will visit Kansas on Monday for a State Department-hosted summit on entrepreneurship in Overland Park, in advance of a global conference in the Netherlands in June. He also traveled to Texas and Iowa this month as part of a swing through the middle of the country.

The visit to Johnson County, in suburban Kansas City, will showcase the former congressman in his powerful new role in the Trump administration and give Pompeo an opportunity to highlight his Midwestern ties. It also puts him a few hours’ drive from his hometown, where there’s growing fear that his former constituents will become collateral damage in Trump’s trade war.

Pompeo’s ability to sell Trump’s trade policies in the heartland could help the president shore up support in advance of his re-election campaign in 2020. It could test Pompeo’s viability as candidate not only in Kansas but, perhaps one day, for higher national office.

Pompeo, 55, is circumspect about what his future might hold. He notes that if someone had asked him if he would ever run for office in Kansas ten or 11 years ago, he would have said there was almost no chance.

“I was running a small business, living my life. It would have seemed unlikely,” he said. He ended up winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the tea party wave of 2010. “I try now to avoid predicting what I might do a year, two years, six years from now.”

‘A little bit of a hiccup’

In 2009, a year before Pompeo’s election to the U.S. House, he wrote a guest column in The Wichita Eagle laying out the path forward, as he saw it, for Republicans reeling from their loss to Barack Obama. The GOP also had lost a net 21 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

Among the principles Pompeo urged Republicans to adhere to was “free trade among nations,” along with limited government and broad political freedoms.

Pompeo, then serving as one of three Kansas members of the Republican National Committee, wrote that these core concepts “must be recognized by the GOP as the most noble engines for prosperity that the world has ever seen.”

Over the next six years, his political rise would be fueled by generous support from Wichita’s billionaire Koch family and their political network, which has long championed free markets.

For four straight elections, Pompeo was the top recipient nationwide of contributions from Koch Industries, with more $335,000 in donations from individual employees and $65,000 from the company’s corporate PAC.

When Pompeo was locked in a bitter 2014 GOP primary fight, Koch-backed advocacy group Americans For Prosperity spent more than $400,000 to boost him in the race. The group has said as recently as this year that there should be no tariffs between “industrialized, high-income nations.”

To Pompeo, there is no contradiction between his own full-throated support of free trade as a congressman and Trump’s strategy of imposing tariffs on China and other countries.

“Oh my goodness, the president is deeply free trade,” he told The Star and Eagle. “Let’s be clear, the trade war with China was started decades ago, and no president was prepared to take it on.”

He argued that the short-term pain caused by retaliatory tariffs will pay off in the form of better long-term trading deals.

“Sometimes in the short term, there’s a little bit of a hiccup,” Pompeo said. That’s why other presidents were not willing “to do the right thing” and stand up to China.

“They let the Chinese exclude Kansas products from their markets,” Pompeo said. “When Kansas companies went to sell products inside of China they were told, ‘No, you can’t do that unless you give us all of your intellectual property, you give us everything you have. The seed corn for your very business you must turn over to the Chinese government.’ That has destroyed opportunity for Kansans.”

In Wichita, where Pompeo built his career in the export-dependent aviation industry, the trade war has sparked anxiety as Kansas manufacturers have had to absorb higher costs caused by U.S. tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum.

“They can’t do it forever,” said Karyn Page, president and CEO of Kansas Global Trade Services, a Wichita-based nonprofit that advises Kansas companies on exporting their goods.

Even Pompeo’s former campaign co-chair, Wichita businessman Fred Berry, is concerned about Trump’s escalation of the trade fight with China. Berry wants Pompeo to use his influence to persuade the president to soften his stance.

“We took it for granted that Kansas could export airplanes and crops without tariffs in those days,” Berry said of Pompeo’s time in Congress.

“But we can’t. That’s the problem,” Pompeo said when told of Berry’s comment. “Look at the Chinese behavior, look at the billions of dollars and intellectual property stolen from the United States of America and American businesses. It’s an enormous amount of money. We’re going to fix it.”

And yet it could be a while before Trump reaches a deal with China. The president said on Wednesday that he is in “no rush” and that Chinese President Xi Jinping knows the U.S. can walk away from talks if no deal is reached.

As farmers and manufacturers in Kansas wait for Trump’s trade war to end, the U.S. has posted a record trade deficit in goods as imports grew and exports dropped, including farm products such as soybeans and wheat — Kansas staples.

Grain stocks were at a record high of 1.2 billion bushels at the end of last year, a sign that Kansas farmers have been unable to sell their products overseas, according to the Kansas Farm Bureau, which consistently supported Pompeo during his runs for Congress.

“If we’re not selling it, we’re storing it,” said Mark Nelson, the farm bureau’s commodities director. “All of this stored grain weighs on prices and more interior locations get hit the worst.”

Kansas was second in the nation in Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies in 2018.

‘It’s his race if he gets in’

Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and a personal friend of Pompeo, said he doesn’t see being tough on China as mutually exclusive with free trade principles.

Kansas business leaders are pleased with Trump’s decision to crack down on intellectual property theft, Cobb said.

“China is a threat, they’re an adversary, and yet we have so much intertwined with them economically … It is a tough balancing act,” said Cobb, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries who also advised Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Cobb thinks if anyone can walk the tightrope of defending Trump’s trade policies while promoting free markets, it’s Pompeo.

“He’s tough but intuitively a free market trader, so he’s the perfect guy to be the point person on this,” Cobb said. “He’s a realist. He doesn’t live in some fantasy world.”

But state Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said Trump’s trade policy has been devastating to the state’s agriculture and aviation industries. He said the issue could haunt Pompeo if he ever decided to run statewide.

“Certainly were Mr. Pompeo to run for the Senate there would be hard questions asked as to why during his tenure as secretary of state the administration has given the farmer and the manufacturing industries the cold shoulder,” Carmichael said.

Pompeo’s popularity among the state’s Republicans remains remarkably strong, however.

A January poll of potential Senate candidates found that 59 percent of likely GOP voters had a favorable opinion of Pompeo compared to only 18 percent who viewed him unfavorably — a score that was 10 percentage points higher than the next most popular candidate, former Gov. Jeff Colyer.

The poll surveyed 740 likely Republican primary voters between January 6 and 7. It was was conducted by Sandlot Strategic, a Kansas City-based political firm, on behalf of supporters of former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s failed gubernatorial campaign.

In a theoretical primary matchup with six other prospective Republican candidates, Pompeo won with a plurality of 27 percent. No other candidate came within 10 points of him.

“It’s his race, if he gets in,” said Colin Hoffman, the founder of Sandlot Strategic.

The poll also found that 69 percent of likely GOP voters in Kansas strongly approve or somewhat approve of the job Trump is doing, compared to 31 percent who either strongly or somewhat disapprove.

306 reasons he supports Trump

Pompeo has been dubbed the “Trump Whisperer” by The New York Times, Economist and other media for reportedly being one of the few cabinet officials to earn and keep the president’s trust from the earliest days of the administration.

In his interview this week, however, Pompeo downplayed his personal relationship with Trump.

“He is the commander in chief,” Pompeo said. “He is the president of the United States. I’m his secretary of state. I work hard to try and deliver the things he is asking us to do because he got 306 electoral votes and the American people chose him to be the leader.”

Trump was not Pompeo’s first choice for president. In March 2016, Pompeo spoke on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign at a Kansas Republican caucus event, taking the stage in Wichita to pan Trump’s candidacy as a circus moments before Trump’s speech in the same convention hall.

Asked whether he could point to a moment when he and Trump bonded, Pompeo demurred. There’s never one moment, he said.

“How do you develop relationships?” Pompeo said. “You work hard. You go deliver. You demonstrate value. I hope I’ve done that for the president. I’ve hope I’ve done that for the United States of America.”

For now, Democrats in Kansas are eyeing Pompeo’s return warily. They are skeptical about Pompeo’s insistence that his trip has no political significance, and protective of their recent electoral gains in the state. Democrats won the governorship in 2018 and flipped a congressional seat from red to blue outside Kansas City.

“Come on, if he was coming for actual State Department business, why wouldn’t he go to western Kansas where he would be talking about the horrible deal for farmers and how the farmers are taking a bath in the trade war?” said Chris Reeves, a Kansas Democratic National Committeeman.

“He’s hopping basically into Kansas’ 3rd District” — an area that includes Johnson county, the most populous and affluent county in the state, Reeves said.

“For right now,” he said. “I’m taking him at his word that he said he’s not going to run for Senate (next year). But that doesn’t exclude him from running for Governor (in 2022) if he wants to do that.”

Where the ‘real people’ are

Although he’s rarely returned to Kansas since selling his home in Wichita in early 2017, Pompeo has made a point of maintaining ties to businesses, political leaders and institutions in the state.

When the Wichita State University men’s basketball team came to the East Coast for a tournament in November, Pompeo, a devoted fan, gave the players a tour of the White House and introduced them to the president.

He still talks regularly to members of the state’s congressional delegation and stays in touch with a small group of friends from his church and in the Kansas business community. Some send notes to let him know they’re praying for him, trade inside jokes or just because they saw him on TV.

“He’s stayed in touch with a lot of people in Kansas. He still considers it home,” said former State Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican who still talks to Pompeo. “He’s got a lot of good friends here who have helped him through business and his political life and I think he values those relationships.”

Still, Pompeo shrugs off the idea of reading anything political into his visit to Kansas Monday.

“It’s not unusual for secretaries of state to travel in the United States,” Pompeo said. “They usually confine their travel to Boston, Washington and New York. I think that’s completely inappropriate. I’m going out to where real people in the heartland are.”

Pompeo, a graduate of West Point and Harvard, said he hopes his visit will help him recruit more young Kansans to careers as American diplomats and demonstrate how the state department is opening markets and making the world safer for Kansans.

Pompeo and his wife, Susan, hope eventually to move back to where their church, friends and family are. If they do, he expects they’ll buy property in Kansas again — a move that would be seen as a prerequisite for running for elected office in the state.

“I have learned an awful lot, both in my time six years serving in Congress, then as a year and a few months as CIA director, now almost a year here as secretary of state,” Pompeo said, marching through his resume.

“I hope I have more wisdom, I certainly should,” he said. “But I know this much, I’ve seen a lot of the world and I dearly love the people of Kansas.”

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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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Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.
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