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Despite Ukraine heat, Pompeo seen as front-runner if he seeks Kansas Senate seat

Transcripts show State Department veterans wanted him to stand up to White House pressure

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has faced criticism over how he dealt with White House pressure to fire the ambassador to Ukraine. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has faced criticism over how he dealt with White House pressure to fire the ambassador to Ukraine. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Recently released transcripts in the House impeachment inquiry have led to criticism of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not stepping up to protect diplomats from White House political pressure over Ukraine.

Republicans in Washington and his native Kansas, however, told CQ Roll Call that nothing they have heard would lead them to back off efforts to recruit Pompeo to run for an open Senate seat in the Sunflower State. They say the former four-term congressman and CIA director would be the immediate front-runner in the race. 

Mike Pompeo is the most respected and popular political figure in Kansas,” said Republican strategist David Kensinger, who managed campaigns for former Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. “If he gets in, the seat comes off the board.”

Pompeo had already faced criticism from Democrats for not disclosing earlier that he listened in on a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Pompeo has defended the withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine, and wrote a scathing letter to House investigators accusing them of bullying State Department employees with requests for testimony.

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Transcripts of depositions released this week by the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry described plummeting morale among State Department employees due in part to Pompeo’s failure to protect former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from false accusations from Trump, members of his family and attorney Rudolph Giuliani.

The revelations coincided with increased scrutiny of Pompeo’s use of State Department resources to travel to Kansas while he reportedly was mulling a Senate bid. After he visited Kansas in October — his third official visit since March — The Kansas City Star published a scathing editorial. And Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called for a review of whether Pompeo had violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in campaign activity during work time or with federal resources. 

The developments could provide fodder to opponents if Pompeo seeks the Senate seat, analysts said.

But without any major revelations of wrongdoing, they said his popularly in the state — especially among voters who believe Trump is being treated unfairly by Democrats on a partisan “witch hunt” — would overpower any negatives. 

“I see this now as more of a bother for Pompeo than a really large problem,” said Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at The University of Kansas. “It takes some of the sheen off Pompeo as an inevitable force that would just walk in here and overwhelm everything.”

Kansas voted for Trump by 20 points in 2016, and has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932. But with Roberts announcing he will retire rather than run again in 2020, GOP leaders are worried about their prospects if the party were to nominate Secretary of State Kris Kobach. A polarizing figure, Kobach lost the 2018 race for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly, but he could be in a good position to win the Senate nomination against lesser known candidates if Pompeo were not to run.

Pompeo, who served as Trump’s first CIA director before he moved to the State Department, would enter the race with a nationally recognized name and the ability to attract deep-pocketed donors. He still has almost $1 million in a campaign account from his last House race, when his supporters included the billionaire Koch brothers, whose energy conglomerate is based in Wichita. 

Pompeo has so far said he doesn’t want to run, but he has reportedly expressed interest to GOP allies, and the Wall Street Journal reported that he talked with Charles Koch about the race during his last visit to the state. 

Pompeo faces a June 1 deadline to get onto the primary ballot, but analysts said waiting that long could invite more complications, including a more competitive primary, more revelations from the impeachment inquiry, or the day-to-day liabilities of his high-profile job. Rep. Roger Marshall, who announced his campaign in September, had already raised $1.9 million by the end of the last reporting period in September. 

“I still think he’s [Pompeo’s] the front-runner now,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “It’s just more of a rocky path than it might have been.”

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