Top 2019 political stories, predictions for 2020

Bob Beatty
Special to Gannett Kansas

As a post-statewide election year, 2019 brought new beginnings for several state leaders. However, it was also one of the most politically bizarre years in recent memory.

Let’s take a look back at some of last year’s political happenings in Kansas and — with appropriate trepidation — some predictions for 2020.

The Sounds of Silence: In January, Laura Kelly was sworn in as Kansas’ new governor, and Scott Schwab became Kansas’ new secretary of state. The relative political silence that then ensued was deafening. For eight years previous — under the administrations of Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach — Kansas politics seemingly couldn’t go a week without some sort of controversy. The reason is that both Brownback and Kobach wanted Kansas to lead the nation in cutting edge conservative issues, especially with regard to tax cuts (Brownback) and voting ID laws (Kobach).

Prediction: With Kansas Senate Majority Leader Susan Wagle running for U.S. Senate, the 2020 legislative session could be quite volatile, but the state-focused styles of Kelly and Schwab should mean the continued de-nationalization of Kansas state politics.

What Up with Watkins?: 2nd District Congressman Steve Watkins had arguably the strangest first year of any politician in Kansas history. In August 2019, some members of Kansas’ Republican leadership began discussing Watkins’ resignation, leading Watkins to flee from the press and then eventually state that he wasn’t resigning. What the heck? We still have no idea what that was all about. Then in December 2019, The Topeka Capital Journal revealed that Watkins — in violation of several laws — had listed a UPS store as his home address on his voting registration forms. The case has now been sent to the Shawnee County district attorney for review. Very bizarre. Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner is challenging Watkins in the August Republican primary.

Prediction: Look for Watkins to fight hard in 2020 to keep his seat, and with the support of outside Super PAC money and a pro-Trump platform, to be tougher to beat than many think.

Size Doesn’t Matter: While Gov. Kelly’s first year in office wasn’t trouble free — one of her judicial appointments went up in flames and she wasn’t able to pass the expansion of Medicaid she so much wanted — the former state senator from Topeka wasn’t afraid to both work with the Legislature and challenge it. Morning Consult, a national nonpartisan polling firm, also showed Kelly’s net approval rating rise from plus 22 to plus 29 over her first 10 months in office.

Prediction: Kelly and the legislature will get a Medicaid expansion bill passed in 2020.

Pondering Pompeo: Longtime Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January 2019 that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election, which prompted a flurry of big names to enter the GOP primary race, including Kobach, Wagle and Kansas’ 1st District Congressman Roger Marshall. However, a fog of uncertainty swirls through the race as Republican party bigwigs like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have openly called for U.S. Secretary of State and Kansan Mike Pompeo to jump into the race. Pompeo’s boss, Donald Trump, has publicly stated that it would be OK with him. Pompeo says he isn’t running. That seems definitive. Or does it?

Prediction: Pompeo tells party leaders he’s definitely not running, but polls in late spring showing a strong Kobach lead in the primary prompt one last plea for Pompeo to enter the race. With only hours remaining before the June filing deadline, Mike Pompeo ponders one last time.

Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at