By John Celock
Kansas politicos are pushing back against a New York Times story that indicates that outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is considering a return to the state to challenge U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)
The Times reported on Wednesday that Sebelius, a former two-term governor, was considering jumping into the race against Roberts this year, replacing Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The Times cited unnamed sources as saying Sebelius wanted to get revenge as Roberts, a former aide to her father-in-law, former U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius (R-Kan.), who has called on Sebelius to resign and has described her management of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout as “gross incompetence. “ Roberts had supported Sebelius’ confirmation to the HHS post.
Sebelius announced last week that she was stepping down from the Cabinet. At that time, Kansas political sources indicated to The Celock Report that she was unlikely to have a future in electoral politics in the state due to her role in managing the flawed Obamacare rollout.
Kansas Democratic Party spokesman Dakota Loomis told The Celock Report that the party has not heard anything from Sebelius or her inner circle about a run.
“We’ve heard nothing to that effect,” Loomis said.
Several sources familiar with Sebelius’ thinking have told The Celock Report that she has not taken any steps to restarting her political operation or launching a statewide run this year. She has also not provided any indication to those in Washington or Kansas that she’s about to restart her political career.
A Sebelius entry into the Senate race would immediately change the political dynamic of Kansas politics this year and the national Senate landscape. While she ranked as one of the nation’s most popular governors during her two terms and easily won reelection in 2006, Obamacare has been deeply unpopular in Kansas and has taken Sebelius down with it.
In 2012, Kansas Republican candidates and groups backing the GOP used Obamacare as an effective weapon against Democratic and moderate Republican candidates for the state Legislature. Since the botched rollout last year, Kansas Republicans have continued their staunch opposition to the health care law.
Nationally, Sebelius would become an immediate focal point for GOP Senate efforts, which would likely pour millions into the race to defeat her and to tie her to other Democratic Senate candidate around the country. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington declined to comment on the possibility of Sebelius launching a Senate campaign.
Roberts has been engaged in a primary battle with tea party favorite Milton Wolf, a cousin of President Barack Obama who opposes Obamacare. Wolf has been struggling following reports that he posted graphic x-rays of gunshot victims on Facebook. Roberts had to battle against a New York Times story earlier this year alleging he has lost contact with the state, a premise Republicans fought back against.
Jeff Smith, a political science professor at the New School in New York City, said that Wolf could have made Roberts vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.
“Had Wolf gotten traction vs. Roberts, a strong Democrat candidate might have a shot, but Wolf has proven to be a bust,” Smith said.
Smith, a former Democratic state senator in Missouri, told The Celock Report that he “would be very surprised if she ran, and truly astonished if she won.” He noted that Obamacare implementation would pull down any Sebelius campaign.
“Implementing – in a way widely disparaged as insept – one of the Obama administration’s most polarizing initiatives is probably not the best route to win an election against a relatively popular, scandal-free incumbent in a Republican state,” Smith said.
State Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) told The Celock Report that he sees the entire state political landscape, including the competitive race between Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence) changing dramatically if Sebelius were to enter the Senate race.
“We have a good chance at this point, of beating an incumbent governor in a red state. Kathleen’s entry into the race would really change that calculus. I don’t know if it would be a good way,” Ward said. “She’d compete for money in the same places that our governor candidate would. She’d compete for field staff. It would bring health care reform and the Affordable Care Act front and center, I don’t think that’s bad for Democrats but we want to talk about education and how Governor Brownback has failed suburban parents, and bad tax policy and health care. Kathleen’s entry means health care dominates.”
Ward noted that he believes that Taylor is a formidable Senate candidate.
Ward also said that he believes Sebelius knows that it would be tough for her to launch a statewide race in April. Sebelius has long been known as a formidable political force, having used her base in Democratic Topeka, along with father-in-law’s high name recognition in heavily GOP western Kansas, to win statewide.
Sebelius came to the governor’s mansion following two terms as state insurance commissioner. During her gubernatorial bids, she tapped Republicans to run for lieutenant governor on her ticket, helping to unite a moderate GOP coalition with Democrats to fuel her rise.
“As Kathleen knows it is late in the electoral calendar to put together the team to run as a Democrat in a red state,” Ward said. ”I know these things because I worked with Kathleen and learned from her. She’s a smart political person but I’d be surprised.”
While Democrats have won gubernatorial and other statewide races for constitutional offices, Republicans have consistently won U.S. Senate races in Kansas for decades.
While many said that it is unlikely for Sebelius to run, Kansas Republicans are salivating at the possibility of her entering the race against Roberts. State Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold released a statement Wednesday morning saying the party would even offer her some assistance to make the trip back from Washington.
“We will pay her bus fare,” Arnold said in the statement.
State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) does not see Democrats encouraging Sebelius to run.
“Her presence on the ballot this year would be a nightmare for Democrats,” he told The Celock Report. “She would be a constant reminder of their link to the failure of Obamacare.”
State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that he does not see her jumping into the race, due to the health care law. At the same time he noted that a Sebelius candidacy would ignite Democrats which could shake things up in Johnson County, home to many moderate Republican state lawmakers, for down ballot races.
“With my analyst hat on I think a run would be positive in the short term for Democrat turnout, but disastrous among independents and soft Republicans who previously propelled Sebelius to victory in statewide races,” Claeys said. “Her wins in counties like mine are unlikely in 2014, though she may make things interesting in Johnson and other populous counties.”
Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), a leader of the state’s progressive Democratic movement, tweeted that he believes Sebelius is popular with the party’s base and would be able to use this in a statewide run.
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 does not believe Sebelius is as popular as she was when she occupied the governor’s mansion. He blames it partially on Obamacare.
Loomis noted that Sebelius has a very bright future ahead of her outside of the political arena. Both of her immediate predecessors at HHS, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), have both forged successful business careers since leaving the Cabinet. Leavitt runs a consulting firm focused on health care issues, while Thompson has served on a number of corporate boards, along with having been a partner in a top Washington law firm. Thompson lost a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin in 2012.
Thompson’s predecessor at HHS, Donna Shalala, who served eight years under former President Bill Clinton, has been president of the University of Miami since leaving the cabinet. In 2011, when she was elected to the U.S. Soccer Foundation board, Shalala was also serving on the boards for Gannett Co., the Lennar Corporation and Mednax, Inc., with the Chronicle of Higher Education reporting that she made over $500,000 from those boards in 2010. In 2010, the Washington Post reported that Shalala made $1.2 million from her college presidency.
Only Shalala has held the HHS job longer than Sebelius.
“Why on earth would you want to become a 66-year-old freshman senator? That doesn’t make any sense,” Burdett Loomis said. “Kathleen will have any number of attractive offers to stay involved and make far more money and have far less hassles.”