Opinion: Will Kansas have a real Senate race?

Pop quiz:

1. Who was the last elected Republican incumbent senator to lose in the general election?

2. Who was the last elected Senate incumbent of either party to lose in the general election?

3. Since 1969, how many open U. S. Senate seats has Kansas had?

4. When was the last senator from Johnson County elected? Who was it?

The answers:

1: The last elected incumbent Republican to lose was Charles Curtis, defeated in 1912, only to return to the Senate in 1915 and subsequently become Herbert Hoover’s vice president.

2. Democrat George McGill won in 1932 but lost his 1938 bid for reelection. No Democrat has since won a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas.

3. Formally, three. Jim Pearson’s seat in 1978, won by Nancy Landon Kassebaum; her seat in 1996, won by Pat Roberts; and Sam Brownback’s seat in 2010, won by Jerry Moran. For all intents and purposes, Sheila Frahm’s seat in 1996 was open; appointed by Gov. Bill Graves, she lost the GOP primary to Brownback.

4. The last Johnson County U.S. senator was Pearson (1962-1978), the only one over the past century.

Why are these questions important? Because Kansas rarely has an open U.S. Senate seat. Few retire and none (save the appointed Frahm) lose.

Thus, Sen. Pat Roberts’s retirement decision has produced a wide-open 2020 race to succeed him. For Republican candidates, it’s an opportunity to have an extended tenure in national office; for Democrats, in the wake of 2018 victories, it represents a historic chance to capture a U.S. Senate seat.

The 2020 election may seem distant, but the filing deadline is just 11 months away. Prospective candidates need to be ready.

First, a roster of possible nominees. For Republicans, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner and former NFL player Dave Lindstrom are in, while Rep. Roger Marshall and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle are all but declared; likewise, perhaps, Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb.

There are more: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, American Conservative Union president Matt Schlapp, and maybe even former Gov.Jeff Colyer and 2018 lieutenant governor candidate Wink Hartman.

Among Democrats, former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and former Rep. Nancy Boyda have already declared, and state Sen. Barbara Bollier is contemplating a run. Add to those the name of Sarah Smarsh, the best-selling author and powerful voice of rural America.

For Republicans, two things stand out: First, if Pompeo gets into the race, even fairly late, he will be the odds-on favorite, attracting funds and presidential support; second, absent Pompeo, the GOP race will be unpredictable, and the number of candidates could well determine the outcome, especially if several conservatives battle it out, allowing a relative moderate like Schmidt to prevail.

With Gov. Laura Kelly’s and Rep. Sharice Davids’ solid 2018 wins, Democratic visions of capturing the Senate seat seem not completely far-fetched. But it’s still a very long shot, unless Kobach wins the nomination, which would provide an opening. While giving Bollier, Boyda and Grissom their due as serious candidates, the most intriguing possibility is Smarsh, whose memoir/social analysis in “Heartland” has propelled her into the conversation about a possible Senate run. With her appeal to the Davids/Kelly constituencies and her roots in rural Kansas, Smarsh would offer Democrats a fresh option. They might say, “After almost 90 years, what do we have to lose?”

Still, like hens’ teeth, Democratic U.S. Senate victories are beyond rare, but a far-right Republican candidate might produce a real race for the first time since Bob Dole squeaked by Bill Roy in 1974.

— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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