TOPEKA, Kan. – The passing of Monday's deadline to file to run for Kansas' open Senate seat confirmed that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won't be a candidate, and a major anti-abortion group threw its support behind Rep. Roger Marshall to keep immigration hardliner Kris Kobach from the GOP nomination.
Republican leaders had not expected Pompeo to give up his post as the nation's top diplomat to seek the seat being vacated by retiring four-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Yet until the noon filing deadline, he remained the top choice for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders who saw him as close to a sure thing for keeping the seat in Republican hands.
The passing of the filing deadline without an appearance by Pompeo in the state capital — or a form signed by him and witnessed by a Kansas resident appearing in the mail — snuffed out the last dying embers of speculation. It also left Marshall and Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who lost the 2018 governor's race, as the top rivals in a GOP field of 11 candidates.
“Considering the fact that Kris Kobach managed to lose a gubernatorial election in a deep red state, it understandably creates anxiety among Republicans if he were to be the Republican nominee,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster.
Marshall’s campaign has received a boost in recent days from key anti-abortion endorsements, including one Monday from the National Right to Life Committee.
“Their support in this race sends a clear message to pro-life voters: Our campaign is in the strongest position to keep the seat in pro-life hands,” Marshall said in a statement.
Many Republicans fear that Kobach's nomination would put the seat in play even though Republicans have won every Senate election in Kansas since 1932. They see a possible repeat of 2018, when Kobach emerged from a crowded primary for governor and alienated independent and moderate Republican voters in the general election campaign. Kansas has no runoff, so it's possible for a candidate to win in such a crowded field with 30% or less of the vote.
Kobach has maintained that he'd win a Senate race in the fall because Trump voters will turn out in greater numbers. He said GOP voters know he strongly opposes abortion and dismissed the nervousness among some top Republicans about him.
“The establishment wants a senator that they can control,” Kobach said. “The establishment wants to compromise.”
The GOP is spooked because the presumed Democratic nominee, Kansas City-area state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former moderate Republican, raised nearly $3.5 million for her campaign by the end of March, more than any other candidate so far.
Republicans have a 53-47 Senate majority. But GOP incumbents face tough reelection races in states including Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and perhaps elsewhere, giving Democrats a legitimate shot at taking over.
“Adding another state to the map, a state where you wouldn’t otherwise be spending in, is not a positive position to be in,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and a long-time political adviser to McConnell.
Marshall's endorsement by the National Right to Life Committee came just after he received a coveted endorsement from Kansans for Life, the state's most influential anti-abortion group and long a key player in state GOP politics. The national group said Marshall, an obstetrician, had an “exemplary” record on abortion issues and has the best chance of defeating Bollier, who strongly supports abortion rights.
Top national Republicans have been watching Marshall’s performance and have expressed disappointment that he did not do a better job of fundraising and clearing rivals out of the field to reduce a division of the anti-Kobach vote in the Aug. 4 primary. Marshall raised $2.1 million by the end of March, much of it from his House campaign fund.
But Marshall pollster Robert Blizzard said Marshall’s fundraising will improve with Pompeo officially out of the race.
“Imagine trying to raise money this past year when there’s been at least a couple of hundred stories about Mike Pompeo, will he or won’t he,” Blizzard said.
Marshall faces plans for $2.2 million in television ads attacking him by the national anti-tax, free-market group Club for Growth. Marshall won his congressional seat in 2016 after unseating conservative tea party favorite Rep. Tim Huelskamp in the GOP primary and has been painted by some on the right as a moderate, despite a conservative voting record and vocal loyalty to President Donald Trump.
And Bob Hamilton, the founder of a Kansas City-area plumbing company, continued last week to launch new television ads in a bid some Republicans are watching to see whether it gains traction.
Kobach, too, has picked up anti-abortion endorsements, including last week from Operation Rescue, which focuses more on trying to shut down abortion clinics than enacting legal restrictions. He also was Trump's earliest prominent Kansas supporter in 2016 and has continued as an informal adviser.
Fram reported from Washington.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna