The top of the Kansas ballot – the contest for governor – will get most of the headlines in the coming election campaign. But not far down is a sleeper, the non-race for one of the state’s highest offices but a source of great speculation among Republicans in back rooms.
Derek Schmidt is presumed to win reelection to a third 4-year term as attorney general. He is thus well-placed to succeed Pat Roberts in the U.S. Senate, perhaps sooner than in 2021, when Roberts’ current senate term expires.
The idea seems to take two tracks: one is that Roberts, 82, will not seek reelection to a fifth 6-year Senate term in 2020 and that Schmidt will run to succeed him. Senate candidate Schmidt would be at mid-point in his 4-year term as attorney general and without risk to his job in Topeka.
The second line is that Roberts would resign soon, in time for Gov. Kris Kobach to appoint Schmidt to fill Roberts’ seat until the next general election. This would allow Schmidt a jump-start on Senate seniority; he would serve the remainder of Roberts’ term, acquiring status as an incumbent for reelection in 2020.
Schmidt, 50, has been a methodical careerist for decades, avoiding risk, moving carefully and with precision: KU graduate (1990), then to England for a masters in inter-national politics, then to Georgetown University for his law degree while serving on the staffs of Sens. Nancy Kassebaum and later, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. He returned home to Independence, succeeded the popular Tim Emert in the Kansas Senate and from there it was up the ladder. He climbed the middle rungs, careful not to lurch left, or to the right, an onerous task in our turbulent Brownback-Kobach era.
Schmidt has managed well enough. He has offended few and pleased most when it counted. He sidestepped Brownback’s lunatic budgeting and pulpit proclamations; he was quiet when Kobach waved the alt-right flag and when legislators resurrected Jim Crow for our election laws. He has carried water for Kobach in the appellate and federal courts. Schmidt had been tough on crime and soft on hard-liners.
He has fit the homespun, constituent-based politics of Pat Roberts, who never met a conservative he didn’t like or a liberal he couldn’t. Roberts has spent more than half his life in federal politics, first as a top aide to Keith Sebelius, in 1968, as Sebelius’ successor in Washington (1981), and after Nancy Kassebaum retired, Roberts succeeded her in the U.S. Senate, in 1997; he has been there since.
Following Roberts was a way to acknowledge Schmidt for his steady behavior during the calamitous Brownback years, for his careful equivocations, his talent for dancing and stepping on no toes while others gyrated about him.
That was the idea and the notion, given a dutiful attorney general and an appreciative, even grateful Republican party. Now what?