Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s official trip back to Kansas this week could have been mistaken for a campaign swing.
Presidential daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump accompanied him as he toured a major aircraft manufacturer in Wichita. Local power players wanted to meet with him. He visited with Wichita State University athletes.
Pompeo’s swift rise from Congressman to CIA director and now the nation’s top diplomat has made him a celebrity to Kansas Republicans. Since Sen. Pat Roberts announced his retirement in January, the assumption among many within the party has been that the seat is Pompeo’s for the taking—if he wants it.
But some of the shine of infallibility is wearing off as Pompeo returned to his home state for the fourth time this year.
An aggressive impeachment inquiry by House Democrats, focused on President Donald Trump’s efforts to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on that country investigating a potential 2020 opponent, has ensnared some of Pompeo’s high-ranking State Department staff.
Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria paved the way for a Turkish invasion and sent Pompeo scrambling to contain the damage from a move widely seen as a foreign policy disaster. He and Vice President Mike Pence have been working to manage the fallout, especially among Christians troubled by how the withdrawal left the Kurds vulnerable to attack.
And Pompeo’s latest trip to Kansas is generating accusations that in a world filled with diplomatic challenges he’s essentially running a shadow Senate campaign.
“Using the privilege of being Secretary of State to run for office is wrong,” tweeted Samantha Power, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama. Each trip represents a major logistical undertaking for the State Department, she said.
In an interview, Pompeo said returning to Kansas was “absolutely” the best use of his time. He downplayed his travel to Wichita, saying other cabinet secretaries go home more often, adding, “I frankly wish we’d get back here a whole lot more.”
Not campaigning, just coming home
Pompeo has ramped up his travel back to Kansas since the start of the year. It appears that before 2019, he made only a single official visit since joining the Trump administration in early 2017.
He returned in March to speak at a State Department-hosted summit on entrepreneurship and in September to deliver a lecture at Kansas State University. In August, on an unofficial trip, he was spotted dining at an International House of Pancakes in Overland Park.
This week’s Wichita visit mixed both business and pleasure. Officially, he promoted workforce development with Ivanka Trump. Unofficially, he was attending the wedding of a close friend of his son.
Pompeo also met on Friday with Charles Koch, a major Republican donor based in Wichita, and the two men talked about the Senate race, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday. A person familiar with the meeting told McClatchy the discussion took place.
Alan Cobb, a Kansas Republican with longstanding ties to Pompeo who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said he doesn’t read any political significance into Pompeo’s visit.
“This is his hometown,” he said of Wichita. Cobb, who leads the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, added: “It seems people in politics assign motives and plans to things that are just normal course of life.”
As Pompeo has continued to return, the race to replace Roberts has only intensified. The West Point graduate became an even more attractive option to Republicans after former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach launched his campaign in July.
The field also includes Rep. Roger Marshall, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, former Chiefs player Dave Lindstrom and media commentator Bryan Pruitt. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Barbara Bollier has quickly emerged as the leading candidate since entering the race less than two weeks ago. Manhattan Mayor Pro Tem Usha Reddi is also running.
Some Republicans fear Kobach may be able to win the GOP primary but would be a weak general election candidate after losing to Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 governor’s race. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gone as far as urging Pompeo to consider a run.
Still Republicans’ first choice
But the past few weeks have proven a difficult period for Pompeo.
Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said that just a few months ago it was close to true that Pompeo was an “800-pound gorilla” looming over the race. That’s changed now.
“When you do go through Ukraine and completely tethering himself to Trump … I think it does open himself up a little more to, ‘wait a minute, was this guy always this great?’” Loomis said.
Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University, said he has always been skeptical that Pompeo will run for Senate in 2020.
“If he leaves now and jumps in the Senate race, there’s always going to be the implication that he knew something and needed to get out, that he was a rat fleeing the ship,” Arben Fox said.
Pompeo has dismissed questions about his political future and this week was no different.
He said in an interview that the House impeachment inquiry hadn’t affected his thinking about a campaign. He joked that he had answered questions about a Senate run “103 or 104 times.”
To be sure, despite mounting controversies, Pompeo remains a strong favorite of Kansas Republicans should he run.
“By far, Pompeo’s our best option,” said Kelly Arnold, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
He can afford to put off a final decision well into next year. The deadline to formally enter the race isn’t until June 2020 and the secretary is perhaps the only figure in Kansas politics who could mount a credible campaign that late.
Additionally, Pompeo has roughly $1 million sitting in a dormant House campaign account he could use as a kickstarter.
“His stature and standing is such that he’s got political time,” Sen. Jerry Moran said Thursday. “So it’s several months before he’d have to make that decision and I suppose his presence in Kansas today fuels further speculation.”
In the meantime, any additional trips back to Kansas are likely to produce increasing criticism.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that advocates for stronger ethics laws, said Pompeo is using federal resources to bolster his potential run in Kansas. It’s difficult to distinguish between official trips and campaign trips when the individual isn’t a declared candidate, he said.
“It’s widely assumed that he is in fact testing the waters … and he is using federal resources for these trips to make sure his face and presence gets all over Kansas,” Holman said.
Pompeo’s trip to Wichita this week included photo-op heavy stops at WSU Tech and Textron Aviation with Ivanka Trump, along with Moran and Rep. Ron Estes. He also conducted a host of interviews with local media, including The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star.
On Friday, Pompeo visited Wichita State University, where he spoke to students and handed out State Department “#SWAGGER” buttons.
“Taxpayers everywhere should be very upset … These are tax dollars being used to fly Pompeo to Kansas to tour a manufacturing facility. What does that have to do with Pompeo’s official role?” Holman said.
Pompeo said that workforce development “matters to my mission, too.” Keeping America safe requires a strong, robust economy,” he added.
David Kensinger, a Republican strategist who has managed statewide campaigns for Roberts and former Gov. Sam Brownback, said “obviously” Pompeo loves to be in Kansas.
“Who wouldn’t?” Kensinger said. “But yeah, every time he comes back folks are encouraged.”
McClatchy DC’s Michael Wilner contributed reporting from Washington