Sebelius to the Senate? Maybe in the Land of Oz, But Not in Kansas

by Stuart Rothenberg April 18, 2014 · 11:23 AM EDT

When I read the New York Times piece, “Sebelius Said to Weigh Run for Kansas Senate Seat,” I had two very different reactions.

First, I figured that national Democrats had to be encouraged that former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a once-popular two-term governor of Kansas, would be considering a Senate run this year.

After all, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor has been in the race for a mere six weeks, and there is little reason to believe that he can throw much of a scare into Sen. Pat Roberts in the fall, assuming, of course, that Roberts wins re-nomination on August 5.

Sebelius has name recognition, demonstrated electoral appeal and fundraising potential, so her candidacy would give Democrats a shot in the arm.

After that, I quickly came to my senses.

This is not your father’s Kathleen Sebelius, the competent governor who stressed her moderation, pragmatism and Kansas connections.

I remember interviewing her years ago, when she was running for governor. She was all business. No chit-chat. Not much personal warmth at all. She was all about Kansas and managing things properly.

The current Kathleen Sebelius worked in the administration of President Barack Obama, handling — and botching — the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

She spent the past six years inside the Washington Beltway, promoting and defending the agenda of Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the national Democratic Party. (One way to take Roberts’ residency issue off the table is for Democrats to run a candidate who spent the past few years in D.C. too.)

As Dorothy might say: I’m still in Kansas, but this isn’t the same Kathleen Sebelius anymore.

Since popular state officials who are members of their state’s minority party often have serious problems winning federal office — Wyoming Democrat Mike Sullivan and Hawaii Republican Linda Lingle are just two examples — a Sebelius Senate bid would not seem all that intimidating.

Nor is Sebelius helped by the fact that the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Kansas was George McGill in the 1930s, or that Obama drew 38 percent of the vote in Kansas in 2012.

Indeed, a Feb. 18-20 automated survey by the Democratic survey research firm Public Policy Polling found Sebelius trailing Roberts by 14 points, and had her behind Roberts’ conservative primary opponent Milton Wolf by 7 points. Sebelius’ personal ratings were upside-down at 38 percent favorable/55 percent unfavorable.

I certainly can see why some Democrats would be urging Sebelius to run for the Senate. And, if she wants to try to turn the page on her Washington days, I suppose a Senate race would help her do that.

But the past few years have changed how Kansas voters will regard Kathleen Sebelius. And the change wouldn’t be at all helpful if she were to make the surprising decision to begin an extremely uphill bid for the Senate this year.

The Kansas Senate race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report.