Congress

Susan Wagle, GOP leader of Kansas Senate, launches bid to replace Pat Roberts in 2020

After nearly three decades in Topeka, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle wants to give Washington a try.

The Wichita Republican will officially launch her campaign for U.S. Senate on Wednesday after hinting for months at her interest in succeeding retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

Wagle, a 65-year-old cancer survivor and the only woman to be chosen Kansas Senate president, said she plans to continue to work as the Kansas Senate’s top Republican through the next legislative session.

Wagle has cast herself as one of the most vocal opponents of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, clashing with her on tax policy and other issues. That role could be an asset as she seeks the nomination against a crowded GOP field.

“I’ve looked at all the candidates in the Republican Party,” Wagle said. “I’m the only one who is a proven leader.”

She filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday evening. Her campaign released a promotional video Wednesday morning and Wagle is scheduled to hold a private conference call with supporters in the afternoon.

The race already includes former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who Wagle endorsed for governor in 2018.

Wagle said she backed Kobach expecting him to be endorsed by President Donald Trump, but she was disappointed by his campaign for governor.

She also criticized his involvement in We Build the Wall, a controversial effort to build a border wall through private dollars. Wagle supports the construction of a border wall with federal dollars and said Kobach’s group undermines that effort.

“We don’t need some rogue organization going out and building the wall,” Wagle said.

Kobach has repeatedly touted his work with the group and has claimed the project is blessed by Trump

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, his first choice to replace Roberts. But Wagle said she thinks her fellow Wichita Republican should remain at the State Department.

“Mike is a friend of mine and we had a conversation just this past week,” Wagle said. She would not say whether Pompeo gave her insight into his level of interest in the Kansas race.

Wagle’s entry into the race was highly anticipated after a fundraising site appeared online earlier this month.

She’s the only Wichita Republican now seeking the seat. Despite being Kansas’ largest city and the home of the aviation industry, Wichita has produced relatively few statewide political winners in recent decades.

“We do need someone from Wichita. We’re in a growth spurt here,” she said.

Wagle, a small business owner, has longstanding ties to the Wichita business community, including billionaire Charles Koch, who lives in her district and has supported her past campaigns.

Wagle is also the only female Republican in the race. “That’s going to appeal to a lot of people across the state,” said Kelly Arnold, the former chair of the Kansas Republican Party.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said it will be a challenge for Wagle to define her place in the race because Kobach “has an extremely well-defined brand.” Based on her recent speeches, Wagle appears to be framing herself as “master legislator,” he said.

“It’s almost like she was positioning herself as the Nancy Pelosi of the Republican field because she talked about her abilities as a legislative leader to get through conservative policies,” Miller said.

Wagle serves on the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that crafts legislation to cut taxes and loosen regulations at the state level.

Wagle was elected to the Kansas House in 1990 and jumped to the Kansas Senate 10 years later. She made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2006 as the running mate of GOP nominee Jim Barnett, who lost to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

She became Senate president after she helped recruit a class of conservative candidates that ousted moderate GOP incumbents in 2012.

Wagle was able to keep her position even after moderates and Democrats ousted many of those conservatives in the next state Senate election. She said that demonstrates her ability as a negotiator.

Asked about her proudest accomplishments during her 28 years in the Legislature, Wagle rattled off legislation passed during her tenure as Senate president, including controversial welfare restrictions that Kelly has unsuccessfully sought to undo and a law restricting abortion that was struck down by the Kansas Supreme Court this year.

Wagle plans to champion the passage of a constitutional amendment in response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s April ruling that found the Kansas Constitution protects a right to abortion.

“That ruling can wipe off every restriction on the books,” Wagle said.

Wagle oversaw the two longest legislative sessions in state history in 2015 and 2017 as lawmakers grappled with budget shortfalls under then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts.

Although Wagle had grown critical about Brownback’s handling of the budget, she did not support the override of Brownback’s veto to repeal the tax cuts.

She said she would have preferred to fix the budget crisis through deep cuts to state spending, a philosophy she wants to take to Washington, where the national debt stands at more than $22 trillion.

“It’s a huge problem,” Wagle said. “We cannot afford to be spending money we don’t have… We’re about to hit a brick wall.”

Despite her concerns, Wagle supports Trump’s tax cuts, which have accelerated the growth of the debt. “If we can fix spending, we’ll be in the right place,” she said.

She said Republicans still need to make good on their promise to replace the Affordable Care Act, adding that “the cost of health care has become a massive problem for all Kansans.”

Wagle said health care is a deeply personal issue for her. She is a survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and three of her four children have grappled with various forms of cancer.

The Senate campaign comes while one of her daughters, Julia Scott, is still recovering from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. Wagle said she has promised her family to prioritize her daughter’s recovery over the race.

Wagle’s family also includes three stepchildren and 15 grandkids. She referenced a photo of one of her granddaughters wearing cowboy boots on a formal occasion as a source of inspiration for her Senate run.

“The U.S. Senate needs a woman in cowboy boots,” she said.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.
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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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