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Trump encourages Pompeo to run for Senate but secretary of state rebuffs him

President Trump speaks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the coronavirus task force during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on March 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump recently encouraged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reconsider running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas but Pompeo rebuffed the request, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Trump spoke to Pompeo about making a bid for the seat during a one-on-one meeting at the White House about two weeks ago, both people said, suggesting that Pompeo could definitely keep the seat for Republicans if he ran.

Trump’s request underscores the growing nervousness among Republicans that they could lose control of the Senate in this fall’s election and that a once-safe Kansas seat could now be in play.

The president has received regular updates from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other political advisers about the worsening political landscape in the Senate, according to Trump advisers, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. The president is regularly presented polling data about competitive Senate races.

“It’s a challenging environment. It has been consistently throughout this cycle. Just look at the numbers. That’s the only conclusion intelligently to read from it,” McConnell said to reporters this week.

Of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs this fall, Republicans are defending 23 of them. Republicans currently hold a 53-to-47 advantage in the Senate.

Republicans grow nervous about losing the Senate amid worries over Trump’s handling of the pandemic

Spokespeople for the White House and the State Department declined to comment.

As the calendar closes in on Kansas’s June 1 primary-filing deadline, a person close to Pompeo said that the secretary is no longer considering running for the seat after weighing it for months last year.

Officials say Pompeo, who served as a congressman from the Wichita area for six years before joining the Trump administration in 2017, wants to remain secretary of state out of a concern that he has unfinished business to complete.

The primary focus of his tenure has been dismantling the Iran nuclear deal struck during the Obama administration and a campaign of economic and military pressure against Tehran. Though he has claimed the administration’s policies have made the Middle East “more peaceful,” Iran’s nuclear program has only grown more sophisticated following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, and violence against U.S. and coalition forces by Iranian-backed groups has increased.

McConnell has repeatedly tried to persuade Pompeo to run for the seat, seeing him as the ideal candidate, according to people close to the majority leader. Trump was initially skeptical of the bid, seeing Pompeo as one of his most valuable and trustworthy members of his Cabinet. Some people close to McConnell were frustrated when Pompeo decided against the bid in January.

There are broader concerns among Republican strategists that the pandemic and Trump’s response to the outbreak could make for a perilous political environment this fall for the GOP.

Trump’s renewed interest in the Senate race probably reflects growing concern that a seat that is normally safely Republican could turn Democratic, said Kansas political observers. The seat is up for grabs following the decision by incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R) to not seek reelection.

The party is worried that a Republican hard-liner who is pursuing the seat, former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, may turn off moderate and independent voters, allowing for a rare Democratic victory. Kobach, who in 2018 lost the governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly, is known for his anti-immigrant views and Trumpian braggadocio.

“If Kobach wins the nomination, Democrats are saying that they have a chance,” said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University in Wichita. “Some Republicans are thinking this and they’ve been in touch with the president, and they’ve been telling him to encourage Pompeo to return home and run. He would easily beat the Democratic nominee, whereas that’s not a sure thing with Kobach.”

Republican anxieties about losing the seat were reflected in two letters sent last month by the Kansas GOP chair, Mike Kuckelman, who urged two Republican candidates to drop out of the primary in a widely interpreted effort to consolidate support behind a moderate alternative to Kobach.

“He’s concerned that Kobach is so toxic that if he gets the nomination he won’t actually win,” said Fox, noting that party leaders believe that Rep. Roger Marshall, a more moderate Republican who represents western Kansas, has a better shot at clinching the seat.

Pompeo regularly visited Kansas in 2019 and was consulting with Ward Baker, a prominent GOP strategist close to McConnell. He had fueled speculation by creating personal social media accounts that regularly featured him with his family dog, cheering on sporting events and even drinking beer in his kitchen.