Time Will Tell On Sebelius Political Return

By John Celock

It’s been eight years since Kathleen Sebelius easily won reelection as Kansas governor by 16 points, but five years as the public face of Obamacare and it’s rocky rollout have hurt her chances of a political future in the state.

Political experts on both sides of the aisle in Kansas agree that Sebelius will have a tough time running for office, or being embraced in a public fashion by her fellow Democrats. With Obamacare politically toxic in the state, Sebelius, who announced her resignation as health and human services secretary on Friday, now finds herself on a political island fighting for relevancy as she leaves behind the glare of the national spotlight.

But people in Kansas say not to count out a Democrat who has won four statewide races. State Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) told The Celock Report that just this week, President Obama and other former presidents were praising Lyndon Johnson.

“There was no more toxic person in 1969 than Lyndon Johnson,” Ward said. “The answer of the toxicity question the result will be the success of the ACA. Rollouts of programs like this have problems. But as people get used to it, it is a success”

Ward said that he believes Sebelius can be a benefit in the short term to Democrats in the state, being able to lend her experience in winning four statewide races as a Democrat in the Republican state. But at the same time he does not see her being that public of a face.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who advised Sebelius in the governor’s office, told The Celock Report that he also does not see Sebelius having a public political presence, at least early on. He noted that she’s turned down opportunities to run for the U.S. Senate in the past and would likely not want to embark on a new career in the Senate now. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former aide to Sebelius’ father-in-law and the first Republican to call for Sebelius’ resignation is seeking reelection this year.

If Sebelius were to provide any assistance to presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis, Loomis said the public won’t likely see it.

“It will not be in a super public way,” he said. “She was elected four times statewide here but she brings the Obamacare stigma back to Kansas. Paul wants to run on state issues.”

Obamacare has been a common punching bag for Republicans in the state. During the 2012 election for the state Legislature, conservative Republicans and their allies made Obamacare and the president frequents targets, including tying Democrats and moderate Republicans to the health care law. The opposition has gone up since the botched rollout of the ACA website last year.

Sebelius had come to Washington known as a moderate Democrat who could win Republican votes and a reputation as a manager honed from over six years in the governor’s mansion and eight years as state insurance commissioner. The daughter of former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan (D), she built a statewide base from a state legislative seat in Democratic Topeka and the reputation of her father-in-law, former U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius (R-Kan.), who had represented the largely rural and Republican western half of the state.

Sebelius also forged alliances with moderate Republicans in her two gubernatorial campaigns, including tapping Republicans as her running mates for lieutenant governor both times. By the time she ran for reelection in 2006, she was ranked as the 20th most popular governor in the country.

On the Republican side, state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) said he does not see Sebelius being able to have a public political presence early on, but noted that she could help in other ways.

“I think her only short-term value is raising money,” he told The Celock Report. “Her having to resign in disgrace after the Obamacare rollout fiasco doesn’t give her much of a value as a candidate or campaigning for candidates this cycle.”

Couture-Lovelady did say that he could see Sebelius being able to regain her past popularity over time, but he doubts Kansans will see her on a ballot again.

“With the passage of time she could potentially regain enough popularity to provide some value to other candidates by appearing for them in Democratic primaries, but Obamacare’s rollout has been too much of a disaster for her to have much of a chance of running herself,” Couture-Lovelady said.

Ward and Loomis both noted that her national connections can be helpful to Democrats in Kansas, particularly in the fundraising arena. Ward said with her experience in statewide politics, she can also be a valuable consultant to other Democrats in navigating the statewide political mine fields.

Ward noted though that Sebelius could decide to step back from politics after two decades in statewide and national politics. He said he would be interested in seeing what her next move would be, whether it is in Kansas or in Washington.

Loomis said that he can see any number of paths forward for Sebelius in Kansas or on the East Coast, noting that her skill set would make her a good fit to run a foundation or a trade association. Loomis said that Sebelius background allows her to know the role she’ll need to take in Kansas politics at least in the short term, but said she could have long-term influence.

“I think she is savvy to see that her role will be less visible than one might imagine,” he said. “If Paul was elected governor, he’d be a fool not to consult with her.”