Sen. Pat Roberts won’t make an endorsement in the GOP primary race to replace him, but that doesn’t mean Kansas’ longest-serving federal officeholder will remain silent about the crowded field.
The Kansas Republican was surrounded by reporters Tuesday as he made his way through the Capitol the day after former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach declared his candidacy for Roberts’ seat.
The retiring senator offered a blunt assessment of Kobach’s prospects and the pitfalls facing the rest of the field of candidates who want his current job.
Kobach’s campaign launch triggered immediate criticism from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the national party’s main campaign wing for Senate races. A spokeswoman said that given his loss to Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 governor’s race, Kansas Republicans should look for another candidate in 2020.
Roberts had essentially the same message.
“It seems to me if you have just lost a statewide race, that the chances of you winning another statewide race would be very difficult,” Roberts told reporters. “I have not talked to Kris about this. I did talk to him earlier, but that was all about allegedly being the head of DHS. But the votes weren’t there.”
Kobach was rumored in March to be under consideration to head the Department of Homeland Security. But Roberts said at the time the Senate would be unable to confirm his fellow Kansan, whose past work on immigration issues has been controversial.
Roberts said national Republicans have been clear that they don’t want Kobach in the race, but that it’s unlikely to affect the candidate’s thinking.
“Kris Kobach, once he makes up his mind, he makes up his mind,” Roberts said.
Kobach’s campaign manager Steve Drake rejected Roberts’ analysis of the race and also hit back against the criticism from national Republicans.
“Sen. Roberts’s assumption that Senate results end up the same as gubernatorial results is historically incorrect. The same Republican can have very different outcomes in a Senate race versus a gubernatorial race,” Drake said in a statement.
Drake pointed to the difference between Sam Brownback’s landslide victory as an incumbent senator in 2004 compared to his close re-election race as an incumbent governor in 2014, saying that Brownback “barely squeezed out a victory in the governor’s race” after winning by 42 percentage points in a Senate race 10 years earlier.
“With respect to the NRSC staffer’s statement, that’s a decision is for the people of Kansas to make—not for people in Washington, DC, to make,” Drake added.
A Democrat has not won a Senate race in Kansas since 1932, but strategists in both parties believe that Kobach’s candidacy could put the state in play in 2020.
Kobach’s entry could ramp up efforts to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the race.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked about Kobach’s candidacy during a GOP leadership news conference Tuesday, used it as an opportunity to call for Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, to enter the race.
“The Kansas race is still unfolding. I’ve said several times—I’m not sure the president agrees with this— that I’d love to see the secretary of State run for the Senate in Kansas,” McConnell said.
Roberts said he spoke with Pompeo about a possible Senate run earlier this year.
“I’ve talked with Mike,” Roberts said. “That happened early on back in February. He showed a little leg if you want to use that term. I think the president probably pulled down the cuff pretty quick.”
Roberts said the Pompeo is too busy to seriously consider the race at the moment as he oversees negotiations with Iran to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons. But he didn’t rule out the possibility that Pompeo could become a candidate in the future despite his public comments downplaying his interest in the race.
“He has some time to mull this over. And obviously he would be a frontrunner candidate,” Roberts said.
Pompeo plans to spend part of August in Kansas for a personal vacation, according to two Republican sources familiar with his plans. One of those sources said that Pompeo has asked friends in the Kansas political and business worlds to keep their schedules open.
Pompeo has roughly $1 million in his old House campaign account, which could be used for a Senate run.
Roberts said that he’s had 11 phone calls and five in-person meetings with potential candidates. Many of them underestimate how difficult it’ll be to win a statewide race, he said.
“I just go over what I think will be absolutely necessary to win the race. I don’t think too many of them have really thought it through to that degree,” Roberts said.
“First they say what a great job I’ve done. Don’t forget to put that in,” he continued. “Then they say that a lot of people have come to them— him or her— and encouraged them to run for the Senate. Then I say how many and have they promised you can raise 12, 15 million dollars?”
Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner, the first Republican to declare a campaign, has raised roughly $500,000 since January.
In addition to LaTurner and Kobach, former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Lindstrom launched a campaign for the Republican nomination last month.
A slew of other prominent Republicans have also floated candidacies: Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman and Rep. Roger Marshall, who holds Roberts’ old seat in the U.S. House and has roughly $1.4 million in his House campaign account as of June.
Marshall has a geographic advantage as the congressman who represents Kansas’ 1st congressional district, the sprawling western Kansas district that also produced former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. Jerry Moran.
“The gold in the political hills rests in the First District. We vote more than the other districts… but to win that vote you’ve got to go there. And you’ve got to go to virtually every county,” Roberts said.
“Then you’ve got Wichita, who desperately would like to have a governor or a senator. But it’s a little difficult for somebody from Wichita to make inroads in the First District. Certainly up in Kansas City it would be the same way,” Roberts said. “So it’s just a hard situation of where you live and where you have your reputation and support.”
He said a candidate from outside of western Kansas can make up the disadvantage, but it’ll require significant dollars and energy to do that.
“The biggest question is they have to want to do this more than anything else,” he said.