Is Derek Schmidt ready for the spotlight? Kansas AG visits DC as he mulls Senate run

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has rarely sought the spotlight, but for a few short hours Kansas’ top law enforcement official was a star to room of senators.

“You were terrific,” gushed Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to Schmidt after a hearing on elderly fraud concluded.

The praise from veteran lawmakers could be a important as Schmidt inches toward a potential bid to succeed Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who is not running for re-election next year.

Schmidt, a 50-year-old Republican who began his third term as attorney general this week, has won each of his statewide elections by double digits. Many in the party are hoping he pursues a run for the seat.

He recently hired former campaign spokesmen for former Rep. Kevin Yoder and former Gov. Sam Brownback to work in his office, moves that suggest he’s building a campaign apparatus in a state where official staffers frequently double as candidates’ campaign teams.

Collins, who chairs the Senate Committee on Aging, had invited Schmidt to testify based on the work his office has done to target scam artists that prey on older people.

It was the Kansas attorney general’s first time testifying before the U.S. Senate after eight years in office.

His testimony came just two weeks after Roberts, R-Kansas, announced his plans to retire after the 2020 election.

“The obvious question is why now? Is that just because Derek’s interested in the subject? Why is Kansas AG’s office focused on this?” Schmidt said.

He said that Kansas’ aging population demands that policymakers get out in front on issues involving the elderly. He downplayed the significance of the hearing’s timing.

“I tell folks I love my job and I love my kids more and those are the two most important factors I’ve got to sort through,” Schmidt said about a possible Senate run. “We’re talking with family, we’re talking with friends, some close supporters. But this is not a political decision at this point. It’s a life choice.”

As Schmidt carefully contemplates a possible run, his former protege at the National Association of Attorneys General, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, has already been sworn into the Senate and was sitting on the committee when Schmidt gave his testimony.

“I was Josh’s mentor. I was assigned to him when he was first elected attorney general. He didn’t need much mentoring,” Schmidt said with a laugh. “And of course he didn’t say there all that long and I’m not able to mentor him in the Senate.”

Some Kansas Republicans are hoping Schmidt follows Hawley’s lead and mounts a run for Senate.

Republicans lost the governor’s mansion and one of the state’s four U.S. House seats in 2018 after more moderate voters in the party embraced Democratic candidates.

One of the biggest questions facing the Republican Party before the open seat Senate race is finding someone who can appeal to a wide enough swath of voters to win the general election, said Kansas Republican chairman Kelly Arnold.

“Derek Schmidt is one of those individuals who is high on the list,” said Arnold, whose chairmanship ends next month. “He has a broad appeal among both moderates and conservatives within Republican Party. He can relate to pretty much all individuals.”

Schmidt spent seven years on Capitol Hill working as an aide to Midwestern moderates, former Sens. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kansas, and Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska.

“Both parties’ caucuses have become a bit hardened and there’s a price exacted whenever somebody crosses party lines… It really makes it hard for the system to work,” Schmidt said.

“I think about that a lot. I think about Nancy’s example. She was terrific, in my view at least, in always being focused on why she was here… She never was very interested in the game. I’m not sure where that fits now in the roster.”

Roberts said that he has not talked to Schmidt about a possible Senate run, but he’s fielded phone calls from other potential candidates. “He’s about the only one I haven’t (talked to). There’s about fifteen so far. I’m counting,” he said.

Ryan Flickner, the senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau, a powerful advocacy group in the agriculture-dependent state, said Kansans will want a steady hand to replace Roberts.

“We don’t like politicians who crave the national spotlight… We don’t necessarily look for someone who is all things to all people and is chasing every imaginary unicorn out there,” Flickner said speaking generally about potential candidates.

Schmidt said Kansas Republicans should learn from the reasons why the party lost the governor’s mansion and “what it takes to persuade Kansans to trust us.”

Schmidt said that without directly referring to the party’s 2018 nominee, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative firebrand who often relished opportunities to engage in national controversies.

Schmidt has inherited one of Kobach’s controversies: The defense of a Kansas voting law that requires voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport, before they can register.

A federal district court judge struck the law down as unconstitutional last year and held Kobach in contempt of court after Schmidt agreed to let Kobach to represent himself in a case that attracted national attention.

Schmidt’s office has now taken over the case and will represent the state when oral arguments in the appeal are heard in March by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic national committeeman, said that Schmidt’s reputation as a moderate has been overstated and that Democrats are prepared to shatter that notion if Schmidt becomes the nominee.

Schmidt was one of the attorneys general who signed onto a lawsuit that resulted in a federal judge Texas ruling the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional late last year. The case is still pending and could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Kansas attorney general said that his decision to join the case has more to do with limiting federal authority than health care policy.

Schmidt came close to mounting a run for Kansas’ 2nd congressional district last year after Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced her retirement, but he eventually opted to pursue a third term for attorney general instead.

“I just couldn’t figure out how to make that job work and still know my kids when they graduate from high school,” Schmidt said.

His daughters will not have graduated by 2020. “But they’re two years closer.”

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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