Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to drop out of consideration for a job in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration is fueling renewed speculation that she’ll run for the Senate in 2010.
“I think it’s absolutely back on the table,” said Larry Gates, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party.
The state constitution prohibits the Democratic governor from seeking a third term in 2010. Also, Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has announced that he doesn’t plan to seek re-election that year.
Sebelius is widely acknowledged by activists in both major parties as the Democrats’ best potential candidate for Brownback’s seat. But she hasn’t declared an interest in running and has said her immediate concern is the state’s budget crisis.
“I have made no decisions about the future and am focused on the work we have ahead for the 2009 legislative session,” she said in a statement this week.
Earlier this month, Sebelius cited the state’s budget problems in asking Obama’s transition team to remove her from consideration for a Cabinet post, after weeks of speculation about an appointment. Sebelius had been mentioned a potential energy, education or labor secretary.
Some Republicans were skeptical she was ever seriously considered. However, during the summer, she was one of four finalists for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, until Obama picked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.
“We can speculate until the cows come home about what her future holds,” Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Wednesday. “Her main focus right now is more about policy than about politics. She’s got some pretty heavy lifting to do.”
Gates also said personal factors played a role in Sebelius’ decision to drop out of consideration for a Cabinet post. The governor’s husband, Gary, is a federal magistrate, and Gates said they would face living apart if the governor took a job in Washington.
“These are the good years of our lives,” said Gates, a friend of the state’s first family. “We’re having a great time with our grown kids, weddings, new grandkids being born. I wouldn’t want to move to Washington.”
Rep. Jerry Moran, a Republican representing the 1st District of western Kansas, began raising money in November for a Senate bid, and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, the Republican who represents south-central Kansas’ 4th District, declared his interest.
Republicans have worried about a Sebelius candidacy for the Senate since she won a second term as governor in 2006 because Brownback had pledged to serve as senator only through 2010. Brownback is expected to run for governor.
Sebelius has proven adept at raising money, collecting about $10 million in cash contributions for her two gubernatorial campaigns.
And her candidacy could give the Democrats their best chance since 1974 of winning a Senate race. That year, Democratic Rep. Bill Roy received 49 percent of the vote against GOP Sen. Bob Dole, whose chances for re-election had suffered because of the Watergate scandal.
“Her not taking the Cabinet job or getting veep is setting up what could be the greatest Senate race in Kansas history,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. “Literally a Kansas battle of the titans.”