TOPEKA, Kansas — For much of 2019, the conventional wisdom among political operatives held that the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Kansas was Mike Pompeo’s for the taking.
The secretary of state and former CIA director could, many insiders believed, launch even a last-minute campaign and assume the inside track for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts. After all, he used to be a Republican congressman from Wichita.
On Wednesday, testimony from European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland was the most direct to date in tying Pompeo to the events driving impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Sondland testified to the House Intelligence Committee that Pompeo was among the high-ranking officials he kept informed on talks that were outside of the usual diplomatic channels with Trump’s private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and others.
The ambassador said those talks conditioned military aid on the Ukranian president publicly declaring an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
Yet among Republican leaders and ordinary voters in Kansas, Pompeo remains a formidable candidate should he come back to join the crowded field for Roberts’ seat.
“If (Pompeo) were to get into this race, he would not only be the front-runner, it would almost be a guaranteed win for the Republican Party,” said Kelly Arnold, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “I think he would clear out the field.”
Arnold said testimony from the impeachment hearings — he called them a “farce” — wouldn’t hurt Pompeo’s prospects, either.
“Especially the Republicans,” Arnold said. “The people of Kansas … strongly support him.”
Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a strident Trump ally who narrowly beat then-incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer in the 2018 gubernatorial primary and lost to Democrat Laura Kelly, is part of the field that also includes U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall from the western 1st Congressional District, and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle.
Pompeo has made repeated visits to Kansas in recent months despite his day job running American international diplomacy. But he dismisses speculation about a Senate candidacy; as early as February, he said a run was “ruled out.”
“I’m going to be the secretary of state as long as Trump gives me the opportunity to serve as America’s senior diplomat,” he said on NBC’s “The Today Show.” “I love doing what I’m doing and I have 75,000 warriors around the world trying to deliver for the American people.”
But in July, he confessed to lingering ambitions of running for office — the presidency.
“America has given me an awful lot,” Pompeo said at a public event in Washington. “And if I thought I could do a good turn, there's nothing I wouldn’t consider doing for America.”
A poll conducted for the Republican National Senatorial Committee and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal in September showed that, among the GOP contenders, only former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach would lose to the person leading the Democratic field at the time.
Kobach has led in some polls of the Republicans chasing the Senate post.
The most prominent Democrat in the race is state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican. Shortly after she entered the race, former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom — the Democrat shown beating Kobach in a hypothetical general election matchup — dropped out.
Nicholas Scott Wherritt, a Wichita Democrat, viewed a Pompeo candidacy skeptically.
“Anyone that’s served in (Trump’s) cabinet, there’s gotta be a stain there,” he said. “Everything is corrupt around that administration, in my opinion.”
Likewise, Andrew Jung of Newton conceded: “I probably wasn’t going to vote for him anyway.”
Dominick Holmes of Wichita is a Republican, but is unlikely to vote for Pompeo. Still, he didn’t find Tuesday’s news that Pompeo was involved in what some have categorized as quid pro quo as a game-changer.
“Republicans are going to vote for him no matter what,” he said. “I haven't really heard anything come out of the impeachment (hearings) that makes me think that he had any underhanded dealings with a quid pro quo or anything yet.”
And in western Kansas’ Garden City, Kimberlea Inderlied said, “the fact that we were withholding military aid so that President Trump could get ammunition against (Biden is) just ridiculous.”
Still, she thought Pompeo’s prospects won’t get bruised.
“It probably,” she said, “won't matter at all.”
This story has been corrected to note the Wall Street Journal story referred to a Republican National Senatorial Committee.
Stephen Koranda, Stephan Bisaha, Corinne Boyer reported this story and Scott Canon compiled it. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics.
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