Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wields unparalleled influence in the Kansas Democratic Party.
She’s been careful about using this power, but when she backs a candidate she can instantly legitimize a campaign to donors and Democratic activists in the GOP-leaning state.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where people are looking for me to pick candidates,” Sebelius told The Star Monday after she announced her endorsement of state Sen. Barbara Bollier in the open seat race for U.S. Senate in 2020.
Sebelius said she told both Bollier and former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom that she was unlikely to endorse early in the race, but when Grissom announced his exit he cleared the way for her to give Bollier, a Mission Hills lawmaker who switched parties last year, her full-throated support.
“It wasn’t just Barbara’s announcement. It was his,” she said.
Grissom’s former campaign manager confirmed that Grissom spoke to both Sebelius and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly before his announcement and sought their advice on how to handle the situation.
Sebelius said she was candid with Grissom about the outlook of the race, but that she did not weigh in on what he should do.
“I think he had that conversation with several other people. I know he had some conversations nationally… and he came to his own determination,” she said.
Several Democratic sources pointed to Grissom’s conversations with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as having a role in the former federal prosecutor’s decision to bow out.
But it’s Sebelius’ support that establishes Bollier as the clear front runner in the primary race, which also includes Manhattan Mayor Pro Tem Usha Reddi.
Sebelius’ power in Kansas
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat who switched parties around the same time as Bollier, said the Kansas Republican Party doesn’t have any person who wields the same internal influence as Sebelius because of internal divisions between moderates and conservatives.
“When she talks, people listen. And that’s that,” Clayton said.
Sebelius won four statewide races, including her successful runs for insurance commissioner before her governorship, a feat unmatched by any other Kansas Democrat.
“There’s the luck of the Irish. And then there’s the luck of Sebelius — who is Irish. Her maiden name is Gilligan,” said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who has known Sebelius for decades.
Hensley noted that Sebelius’ first statewide victory came in 1994, a bleak year for Democrats nationally and in the state. She was one of only two Democrats in the nation to win statewide that year, Hensley said.
Sebelius stepped down as Kansas governor in 2009 to serve as President Barack Obama’s first secretary of Health and Human Services.
She became the face of the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act that temporarily damaged her brand, but in recent years the former governor has established herself as a major force in Kansas politics.
Sebelius recruited her long-time friend Kelly into the race for Kansas governor in 2018 and was a frequent presence at campaign events throughout the election cycle.
With Sebelius’ backing, Kelly trounced opponents in fundraising and went onto to capture the governor’s office.
“I kind of call her the big enchilada,” said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who worked for Sebelius’ administration. “People respect her and often refer to her, but I think she is cautious about exercising her power.”
Loomis said that Sebelius has been selective about when to assert her power within the party.
“With Laura (Kelly), it was absolutely all important. Laura is Kathleen’s good friend. She was a very reluctant candidate and I think Kathleen convinced Laura that she was doing something good for the state and the Democratic Party,” Loomis said.
Sebelius has stayed well-connected to Kansas political donors, said Chris Reeves, Kansas’ Democratic National Committeeman. Her support can elevate a candidate, while the absence of it can doom a campaign.
Reeves pointed to Sebelius’ public comments about the unlikeliness of an early endorsement as a message for donors to wait, which he said helped drive Grissom out of the race despite raising roughly $470,000 during his three-month campaign.
“I think the specter of her potentially endorsing someone else had to be a factor because that’s what happened to Josh Svaty,” Reeves said, referring to one of Kelly’s defeated primary opponents.
“It’s far more about donors,” Reeves said of Sebelius’ endorsement of Bollier. “It may also be to pressure nobody else to enter the race and send a message to Usha Reddi that her campaign is probably not going very far.”
Grissom endorsed Bollier a day after she officially announced her campaign. Sebelius’ endorsement came four days later.
Sebelius said in early conversations candidates seeking her support often want her to validate their campaigns, but she looks for candidates who can provide their own clarity about why they should hold an office.
In Bollier’s case, Sebelius pointed to her work on Medicaid expansion and reproductive rights and her willingness to put principles over political gain and her long-term working relationship with Kelly as factors in her decision to back her.
“I know from Laura’s days in the legislature the people who she relied on as great work partners and great thought partners, people who actually got things done, Barbara was key among them,” Sebelius said. “Listening to Laura talk about her as a colleague and as a friend she was certainly very enthusiastic.”
Kelly has yet to wade into the Senate race, but Bollier’s campaign team includes the governor’s former spokeswoman.
Sebelius said Kelly’s win in the race for governor provides a path for Bollier to follow in a state where Democrats have not won a Senate race in eight decades, but warned that in a Senate race it’ll be tougher to avoid national debates and the party’s eventual presidential nominee will hold sway over the race.
“My guys used to say to me just don’t get caught in that national jet stream,” Sebelius said. “You can’t do that as a candidate for the United States Senate.”
Sebelius stayed neutral in last year’s primary for Kansas’ 3rd congressional district, but once first-time candidate Sharice Davids won the nomination Sebelius became a fixture at her campaign events as Davids went on to win Kansas Democrats their first congressional seat in a decade.
Asked if she would make similar appearances on the campaign trail for Bollier, Sebelius said it would be up to the campaign to determine her role.
It will be impressive if Bollier can deliver the party its first Senate race since 1932. Sebelius said Democrats’ top of the ticket victories last year make that goal seem feasible for the first time in years.
“There’s a sense that, OK, this is not just a pipe dream,” Sebelius said.
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.