TOPEKA — Senate President Susan Wagle tried to blossom as a candidate for U.S. Senate during the most personally challenging year of her life.
Wagle, a Republican with 30 years of experience in the Kansas Legislature, has never been mistaken for a shrinking violet. She took on an otherwise all-male Republican field to make the case she was best suited to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the dean of Kansas politics. As the primary campaign season was about to catch fire in March, COVID-19 began consuming the nation’s political oxygen. Then, one of her children, 38-year-old Julia Scott passed away. Her cancer had been diagnosed 2016. A transplant failed in December. She died in March. Wagle stepped away from her Senate bid in May.
“This has clearly been the most difficult year of my life,” Wagle said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “When I entered the race, I talked to all my children, and they all said, ‘Yes, mom, you’d be a great senator. Please run. Please run for the grandkids’ sake.’
“And my daughter at that time was battling multiple myeloma. We thought that she would have a cure. That she’d go into transplant and she would be well. I just, I couldn’t keep up with that race and with COVID breaking out all across Kansas — so sorry, I’m getting teary-eyed. It’s still very hard for me.”
She’s invested in making certain her 16 grandchildren have opportunities to be with each other and find healing.
Wicked GOP primary
Wagle’s exit from the GOP primary meant she didn’t have to endure a brutally toxic demonstration of smashmouth politics among former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of the 1st District, and former Kansas City-area plumbing company owner Bob Hamilton. These candidates and a wild collection of political action committees dumped millions of dollars into an unparalleled assault on voters’ senses ahead of the Tuesday primary election.
From her armchair in Wichita, Wagle sees a two-person race between Marshall and Kobach with Hamilton gaining momentum with a series of spunky TV commercials. She said polling has been rendered irrelevant as people became weary of all the advertising, direct mail, texting and phone calls.
“I think it’s unpredictable,” she said. “But I think we need to respect the winner in the party. And as Republicans, we need to unite behind the winner. In my opinion, this seat needs to stay Republican. I’m not sure who’s gonna win. But I’m very confident that we’re gonna have a lot of repair work to do come next Wednesday to support the winner and pull people together.”
Wagle, who has been a supporter of President Donald Trump, said the nation’s chief executive rubbed some folks the wrong way but would win re-election in November against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Despite Trump’s eagerness to be “authentic” and the guy who “always speaks his mind,” she said the president genuinely sought to make the United States stronger. Biden’s quest to escalate fear among the electorate during the pandemic can’t erode public confidence Trump can bolster the economy, she said.
“He’s clearly not a politician,” Wagle said of Trump. “People get very angry with him. They think he’s caustic. They think he’s arrogant. On the other hand, I look at him as a problem solver, a person who’s willing to take on the establishment, a person who’s willing to address problems directly and solve the problems.”
Wagle revealed no remorse about tangling with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in terms of the executive branch’s response to COVID-19. They know each other well, having served in the Senate together from 2005 to 2019. Wagle demanded in public meetings that Kelly offer real leadership, while the governor denounced the GOP for second-guessing her for political gain.
Wagle said she was irritated by Kelly’s executive orders that compelled people to stay home, close businesses, avoid church and interrupt K-12 education. She said large retailers, such as Home Depot or Dillons, were allowed by the governor to remain in operation early in the pandemic, while “nonessential” businesses in hundreds of towns and cities had to close.
“All the essential businesses, which are, you know, mostly stock-owned, they did very well. Their profits soared. And Kansas businesses just went under water,” Wagle said. “If you talk to rural Kansas, they’d say, ‘You know what, there’s a Walmart outside of town, everybody went there and my Main Street is closed.’ It was a two-tiered system. You’re a winner or loser, and a lot of Kansans lost a lot of money.”
She said she didn’t recall some Republican legislators declaring early in the pandemic that COVID-19 wasn’t a meaningful threat.
Public health officials say at least 27,800 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Kansas. Of that total, more than 1,750 have been hospitalized and 350 have died.
“It’s pretty serious,” Wagle said. “You could look at any of the big cities and and see that there’s an outbreak. It’s not going away.”
Health care issues
On legislative policy, Wagle said the 2020 Legislature missed an opportunity to place on statewide ballots a constitutional amendment declaring the right to abortion didn’t exist in the Kansas Constitution. The Senate approved the question, but the House fell short.
Wagle brought gridlock to the session until the amendment was dealt with, but conceded the issue didn’t gain much traction during the GOP primary. She predicted public sentiment may harden in support of an amendment if Kansas abortion restrictions were successfully challenged in court.
Another key issue for Wagle has been opposition to Kansas expanding eligibility for Medicaid. If approved, the 2010 federal law could have provided health care to an additional 100,000 to 150,000 adults and children. The federal government would have picked up at least 90% of the cost. However, Wagle and allies have stiff-armed expansion for years.
“It’s not a quality program,” she said. “It’s not the best health care for everyone. It’s a government-run health care program, and I would rather have health care reform and bring costs down. Costs have exploded since Obamacare passed. If you ask anybody on Medicaid, they don’t feel like it really serves their best interest.”