Why Kathleen Sebelius’s political career is (probably) over

Six years ago, Kathleen Sebelius was a rising Democratic star. She exits the national stage today as something very different: A politically wounded figure whose nearly three decade-long run in elected or appointed office has almost certainly come to an end.


Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sebelius is resigning as President Obama's Health and Human Services Secretary after the most turbulent seven months of her tenure. As she ponders her next move, Sebelius will have to come to grips with the reality that both nationally and back home in the state where she was once wildly popular, she's become a symbol of the Obama's administration's most polarizing policy.

"Kathleen Sebelius may have a future in the private sector but her public office service is over," said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold. "Voters in Kansas have never supported the idea of Obamacare and having Sebelius as CEO of it has turned Kansans away for any support for her."

The story of Sebelius, 65, is a cautionary tale about the risks associated with joining a presidential cabinet, which is consistently a coveted perch for many pols. Once looked upon as a potential vice presidential candidate, Sebelius now arguably embodies the problematic implementation of Obamacare more than anyone not named Barack Obama. And that will make a return to elected office in Kansas -- should she want to pursue it -- extremely difficult.

"I think she has no ambitions in Kansas electoral politics," said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis, who worked for Sebelius when she was governor. "The last small opportunity would have been to run for the Senate against Pat Roberts (R), and that simply wasn't going to happen."

Former governors often make good U.S. Senate recruits. But Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932 and this year's race has moved too far along for her to conceivably jump in against Roberts. Plus, he's a family friend. (Faced with a conservative primary challenger, Roberts has been forced to adopt a hostile posture toward Sebelius despite their long-standing relationship. He called on her to resign last year, a testament to how much opposition she inspires among conservative voters.)

The next opportunity, in theory, would come in 2016, when Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) faces reelection. A run then would present Sebelius with deep challenges, not the least of which is rehabilitating her image with the decidedly conservative Kansas electorate. A recent poll showed the majority of Kansas voters held an unfavorable opinion of her.

She could technically run for governor again, but this year's race is well underway and Democrats are excited about Paul Davis, a rising star state legislator from whom Sebelius has campaigned. So a run for her old job would be at least four years away.

Still, having been governor and HHS secretary means that Sebelius has cultivated powerful relationships and may reemerge as a high-profile figure in a non-political capacity. Some wager that she may well follow the path of other cabinet secretaries with similar resumes who moved on to take on high-profile leadership positions at leading universities.

"In light of the fact that shes been a governor and secretary of HHS, it seems to me that following in the footsteps of former HHS secretary [Donna] Shalala or former homeland security secretary [Janet] Napolitano kind of makes sense," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Many Democrats feel that the health-care law's popularity will grow in the coming years, thereby vindicating the administration officials who were pilloried for its problems. In the case of Sebelius, who Obama praised Friday for an "historic accomplishment," that would be welcome news.

For now, though, she exits the spotlight in worse political shape than she entered it.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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