Congress

Trump picked Kansas Republicans’ governor candidate. Will he do it again for Senate?

President Donald Trump’s endorsement helped Kris Kobach win the Republican primary for governor in 2018. Trump could play a similar role in the race to replace Sen. Pat Roberts
President Donald Trump’s endorsement helped Kris Kobach win the Republican primary for governor in 2018. Trump could play a similar role in the race to replace Sen. Pat Roberts AP

President Donald Trump could anoint the nominee when Kansas Republicans choose a replacement for Sen. Pat Roberts next year.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be a frontrunner for the seat if he decided to give up his role in Trump’s cabinet to mount a run.

The former Wichita congressman isn’t the only Trump administration official being mentioned as a potential candidate. Federal Communications chair Ajit Pai, who grew up in Parsons, Kansas, could also pursue the seat.

Wichita native and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said that he would decide on whether to run for the seat after his organization hosts next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, regarded as the Washington area’s most influential conservative gathering.

A Senate bid is “something that my family, that my wife, has been urging me to consider for years,” said Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes Schlapp, is White House director of strategic communications.

Schlapp said if he does run he would welcome Trump’s support, but he wouldn’t count on it as guaranteed.

“People who try to force the president’s hand learn quickly that’s a bad strategy,” he said.

Pompeo would be a huge favorite if he entered the race, but sources close to the secretary of state have emphasized to McClatchy that he remains focused on his current role as the nation’s top diplomat.

If Pompeo doesn’t run, there are other potential candidates with links to Trump. Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb is weighing a run and served as an adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Trump got involved in Kansas GOP politics last year, with disastrous results for the party.

A single tweet from the president on the day before the Republican primary in August elevated Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach over Gov. Jeff Colyer by a 345-vote margin in the race for governor. Kobach went onto lose to Democrat Laura Kelly by 5 percentage points in the general election despite Trump traveling to Topeka to boost Kobach.

Both Kobach and Colyer could mount 2020 Senate runs.

Kobach has had Trump’s ear on immigration issues since 2016. The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., held rallies on the Kansas Republican’s behalf before Trump made the decision to endorse Kobach over Colyer.

“There’s going to be a competitive election for the nomination regardless, but the president’s obviously got the ability to impact the race more than anyone else,” said Scott Paradise, a GOP consultant who worked on Colyer’s campaign for governor.

Kansas GOP chair Kelly Arnold said he believes the Trump tweet “by itself is what put Kris Kobach over the top in the primary,” explaining that Trump bucked pleas to stay neutral in the race.

There was a five point swing in Kobach’s favor between advanced ballots and ballots cast on Election Day after Trump tweeted his support for Kobach and recorded robocalls on his behalf, Arnold said.

Could Trump singlehandedly determine the party’s nominee next year when the party selects a replacement for the retiring Roberts?

“I never know what he’s going to do when he gets his phone out to tweet,” said Arnold, who will step down as chairman in February after six years.

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who turns 31 next month, became the first Republican candidate to enter the race to after the 82-year-old Roberts announced last week he would not seek another term.

LaTurner is unlikely to clear the GOP field in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat for Senate since 1932. Even before Roberts announced his decision prominent Republicans were speaking openly about their interest in the seat

Democrats didn’t even mount a campaign for Senate in 2014, opting to let independent Greg Orman challenge Roberts one on one. The party is taking the 2020 race more seriously, but it’ll still face a tough fight in the GOP-leaning state even with the open seat.

Arnold said he expects Republican candidates embrace Trump on the campaign trail, noting the president’s popularity with the Republican base in the state. Trump won Kansas by 20.6 percentage points in 2016.

Trump isn’t beloved by all Kansas voters. Trump-backed candidates lost the races for governor and Kansas’ 3rd congressional district in 2018 partly because of voters’ frustration with Trump in the Kansas City suburbs.

Arnold said he expects Republicans will have more success when Trump is on the ballot in 2020. A Democrat has not won Kansas in a presidential race since 1964.

Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, a likely candidate for the race, has been outspoken in his support for the president in recent months.

He’s said that farmers in his district were willing to weather Trump’s trade fights because of their patriotism and he has gone on cable news to advocate for Trump’s proposed border wall. Last week Marshall wrote an op-ed in The Hill comparing the search for a new secretary of defense to the University of Kansas’ search for a new basketball coach in 2003.

The university hired Bill Self and won a national championship in 2008. Marshall said that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ departure gives Trump the opportunity to find his Bill Self for the Pentagon.

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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