Fear of Kobach and 2020 ‘disaster’ drive Pompeo recruitment, say GOP strategists

Fear that Kris Kobach will capture the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate is driving the effort to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the race, according to GOP strategists with ties to Kansas.

“No one wants to relive the disaster that was the Kobach campaign,” said David Kensinger, who has managed successful statewide campaigns for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kensinger said attempts to entice Pompeo, who is fourth in line to the presidency as the nation’s top diplomat, to run to replace the retiring Roberts can absolutely be traced to concerns about a possible Senate run by Kobach, the party’s 2018 nominee for governor.

Kobach supporters are active. The political action committee set up to support Kobach’s failed bid for governor has been conducting phone polling in recent weeks on his favorability among GOP voters in anticipation of a possible Senate bid.

Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, lost by nearly 5 percentage points to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly last year in one of the nation’s most Republican states. He ended his campaign with a deficit of nearly $30,000 after relying primarily on financial support from his running mate Wink Hartman, a Wichita oil magnate who is also weighing a Senate bid.

GOP strategists have decried the disorganization of Kobach’s campaign for governor and his penchant for courting controversy, but he remains popular with the party’s base and still frequently speaks to President Donald Trump, according to his former campaign manager.

“I think Kris Kobach would be a formidable candidate and emerge the winner of a contested primary,” said J.R. Claeys, the Republican state representative who managed Kobach’s campaign for governor.

Trump’s support helped elevate Kobach over former Gov. Jeff Colyer in one of the closest primary races in U.S. history and would be a huge asset if he ran for Senate against a crowded field.

This could explain why powerful Washington Republicans are urging Pompeo, one of Trump’s most trusted lieutenants, to consider a run.

Republicans only gained two Senate seats in 2018 with a favorable map and in 2020 the party doesn’t want unnecessary headaches in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

“Kris Kobach in the general election would be a major problem that Republicans are wisely trying to avoid,” said Scott Paradise, a GOP consultant who works in Kansas and Missouri. “Pompeo would immediately take this race off the board.”

Kobach did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Former Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, told reporters in Topeka Tuesday that there may be GOP candidates who “would give Democrats an opening to win the race. We want to avoid that.”

Asked if he was referring specifically to Kobach, Yoder said, “I’m just saying this: A complicated primary could allow certain candidates to emerge that may not be as strong in the general as others.”

Yoder lost his re-election bid to represent Kansas’ 3rd congressional district in the House in November as Democrats performed well across the ballot in the Kansas City suburbs.

Pompeo, who has nearly $1 million in his dormant federal campaign account, won all four of his elections to the U.S. House by double digits before joining Trump’s administration in early 2017 as CIA director and transitioning to secretary of state the following year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has personally encouraged Pompeo to consider the race. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, spoke glowingly about the prospect of a Pompeo candidacy this week.

“I can say without equivocation and without qualification, I can conceive of no one who I’d rather work with in the United States Senate from the state of Kansas than Mike Pompeo,” Young told nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, disputed the notion that concerns about Kobach’s candidacy played a role in the overtures to Pompeo.

“Support for Sec Pompeo has nothing to do with any other candidates but rather a broad recognition that he’s the best possible Senate candidate,” Holmes said in a text message.

A crowded field of potential GOP candidates has already formed after Roberts’ announced his retirement plans this month, but it’ll be tough for any of these candidates break through as long as there’s a possibility Pompeo might run.

“There’s very few folks that are field-clearing candidates,” Yoder said.

Senior GOP sources said that Pompeo is weighing a run, but is taking time with his decision. The filing deadline is not until June 2020.

It would be a highly unusual move for Pompeo to give up his prestigious cabinet post to run for Senate in a reliably Republican state.

“I cannot imagine President Trump letting go of such a valuable asset, especially with his re-election around the corner,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican weighing her own Senate run.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman and Lindsay Wise, Lesley Clark and Alex Roarty 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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