Congress

‘Purple’ Kansas? Former federal prosecutor mulls Senate run against Pat Roberts

Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom
Former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom

Sen. Pat Roberts looks vulnerable to Democrats — and some Republicans, and that’s a big reason the 2020 race has quickly drawn a prominent potential challenger, former U. S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom.

Grissom confirmed Monday that he’s been considering a run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat for roughly a year.

He’s not officially made his decision, but he’s actively is laying the groundwork to mount a challenge against Roberts, the Kansas Republican who has been in Congress for nearly four decades.

Based on Kansas’ history and voter makeup, Roberts’ seat should be safe. But the 82-year-old Republican is not assured a fifth Senate term.

Roberts survived a primary challenge in 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote, as first-time candidate Milton Wolf pulled within 8 percentage points by questioning the senator’s conservative credentials and attacking him for not spending enough time in Kansas. Roberts needed a flood of national money to power him through the general election.

Then there’s the age issue.

“I can just see the ads. Pat Roberts will be 90 by the time he leaves office… You certainly don’t want to look at an 84-year-old who almost got beat in the primary six years ago and say this is the guy we want to have running,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas professor of political science who served in former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration.

If Roberts doesn’t run, outgoing Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, have been mentioned as potential candidates. No Republicans have officially said they would challenge Roberts, but a 2020 primary battle is expected.

Democrats won the governor’s mansion in 2018 and one of the state’s four congressional seats. That momentum should put the Senate seat in play in 2020, argued Grissom, who has formidable credentials for a first-time candidate.

Grissom led the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas from 2010 to 2016, overseeing the investigation of Colyer over campaign loans he made to then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election campaign. The investigation resulted in no charges against Colyer, who was sworn in as governor this year.

The prosecutor also oversaw the successful investigation into a planned terrorist plot against the U.S. Army Base at Fort Riley, which resulted in a 30-year-prison sentence for the Topeka man implicated in the plot.

Grissom would be running against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s frequent clashes with the Democrat’s old agency, the Department of Justice, which is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election and a string of alleged crimes by Trump’s associates.

He has met with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to discuss a possible run. He’s also talked with Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who won last year’s special election in Alabama.

Roberts’ spokeswoman dismissed Grissom’s chances.

“Barack Obama hired Grissom and he was a favorite of (former Attorney General) Eric Holder. That’s about all you need to know,” Roberts’ spokeswoman Sarah Little said in an email.

Grissom would be taking on a senator who’s been a fixture in Kansas Republican politics for decades.

Roberts’ father was a close friend of President Dwight Eisenhower. The son was first elected to Congress in 1980 after working for years as an aide to Rep. Keith Sebelius, the Republican father-in-law of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius.

Roberts is coming off a major legislative victory as a key player in last week’s overwhelming passage of the farm bill, but he has not yet decided on whether he’ll mount another run.

Grissom, who lives in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, turned down requests from party leaders to pursue a run for governor or Yoder’s seat in the last election while Grissom was working for Polsinelli, a Kansas City law firm that was Yoder’s top source of campaign contributions during the 2018 cycle.

Grissom has left Polsinelli and as of last month is serving as vice president and corporate counsel for Electrum Partners, a Las Vegas-based venture capital firm that invests in medical marijuana.

After Democrats won the races he passed up this year, Grissom is giving more serious thought to a 2020 run.

“Folks in D.C. they’ll smile politely when you start talking about Kansas could be purple… but now after this last election they look you right in the eye,” Grissom said. “I wouldn’t be considering this unless I thought there was a real opportunity.”

Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Washington-based Inside Elections, was skeptical that a Democrat would be able to seriously contend for the Kansas seat.

“I think the senator’s main vulnerability would be in a primary,” Gonzales said.

“I know Democrats just won the governorship, but I think that had more to do with (GOP nominee Kris) Kobach and maybe Brownback than Kansas lurching to the left,” Gonzales said.

A Democrat has not won a Senate election in Kansas since 1932— a drought that’s more than three decades longer than the party’s losing streak in presidential elections in the reliably red state.

“It took Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression,” Grissom said with a laugh about the last time a Democrat won a Senate race in Kansas.

Senate races have been such a low priority for Kansas Democrats historically that the party persuaded its nominee, Chad Taylor, to drop out of the 2014 contest to clear the way for a challenge by independent Greg Orman against Roberts.

“I’m not sure being a strong Democrat is enough for Kansas,” Gonzales said. “I think Democrats need a combination of a strong candidate and Republican implosion,” he said. “It’s certainly possible for Democrats to win, but I don’t think it’s likely at this early stage.”

Lindsay Wise of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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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