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The Case for Kathleen Sebelius

Back when the 2008 presidential race was just getting started, The Fix made the case for and against nearly every major candidate for the White House.

VP Watch

Those cases were built on conversations with operatives of both parties and The Fix's own observations. Some proved prescient -- we wrote the case for Barack Obama all the way back in July 2006 -- while others were, um, slightly off target.

Now that we have two presumptive nominees, we're dusting off the concept to make the case for and, more deliciously, against some of the people mentioned in the media and by political operatives as potential vice presidential nominees. (Perhaps knowing he was destined to be profiled in a Fix case for/case against, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland -- one of the most oft-mentioned Democrats on the list of potential VPs -- ruled out any interest on Tuesday.)

The Fix will tackle one candidate a week, making the case for and then against. We kick off the series today by arguing that Obama should select Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to join him on the Democratic ticket.

Sebelius, close readers know, currently holds down the No. 2 slot on the most-recent Veepstakes Line. (Huffington Post's Sam Stein penned a Sebelius profile of his own just yesterday.)

This piece is meant to spark conversation, so feel free to agree, disagree, condemn or compliment in the comments section below.

Not Afraid of the Tough Decisions

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius listens to remarks during the National Governors Association winter meeting on Feb. 23, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo)

For most national observers, the Sebelius story begins in 2002 when she was elected governor in an open-seat race to succeed term-limited Gov. Bill Graves (R).

But those who know Sebelius best trace the roots of her electoral success back to 1994 when, in one of the worst years in memory for Democrats and in the heart of Republican America, she was elected Insurance Commissioner.

While that, in and of itself, was historic -- she was the first Democrat and the first woman to hold that office -- her allies argue that what she did with the office revealed her as a competent and effective executive willing to make tough decisions -- traits that led to so much success later.

Specifically, Sebelius fans point to a decision in February 2002 in which she rejected an attempt by Anthem, an Indiana-based health insurance company, to buy out Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas. Commissioner Sebelius cited the need to maintain local control of the insurer and keep costs down for average Kansans.

She was the first insurance commissioner in the country to deny a merger of this sort, thus the decision drew national attention. Although it was not a clear political home run at the time (and Sebelius had already made clear that she was planning to run for governor that year), she banned her campaign team from playing any role in the decision.

Sebelius bet that Kansans would trust her judgment on the matter. And they did -- delivering her the governor's mansion later that year by an eight-point margin, becoming only the second woman in Kansas history to serve as the state's highest ranking political figure. (True political nerds, like The Fix, know that Democrat Joan Finney was the other; she beat Mike Hayden in 1990, 49 percent to 43 percent.)

The calm reassurance that led her to make a decision that could have derailed her gubernatorial campaign has come to define Sebelius as a political figure.

"She is a very strong and competent chief executive officer of the state," said Rich Davis, a Democratic media consultant who has worked with Sebelius in both of her gubernatorial races. (Sebelius's pollster, Alan Secrest, has been with her since that first race for insurance commissioner in 1994.)

Post-Partisan by Example

One of the major components of Obama's success in the Democratic primaries was his appeal not only to his party's base voters but also to independent voters and disaffected Republicans. His post-partisan message resonated with voters sick of the status quo in Washington.

Sebelius is a living, breathing example of how politicians can transcend party boundaries and find success in a state in which the deck appears to be stacked against her.

In order to understand the magnitude of the challenge before any Kansas Democrat seeking statewide office, one need only look as far as the state's voter registration numbers. As of March 2008, there were 741,006 registered Republicans in Kansas and just 445,468 registered Democrats -- a massive 295,000 person difference. In fact, registered Democrats are not even the second-largest voting bloc in the state; that distinction goes to Kansas's 446,550 unaffiliated voters.

To win in such a challenging climate, Sebelius knew she had to try something different. In 2002 she recruited retired Cessna executive John Moore, a registered Republican, to run as her lieutenant governor. Four years later she one-upped herself by naming Mark Parkinson, the former chairman of the Kansas Republican party, to replace Moore on the ticket.

VIDEO | Gov. Sebelius sits for a PostTalk interview during the NGA meeting in Washington in February. Watch the interview. (

Joyce Allegrucci, a former top aide to Sebelius who is widely described as the governor's closest political confidante, said that the future governor learned quickly upon moving to the state that "Kansas was staunchly Republican but that didn't mean Kansans were her enemies."

Sebelius's instinct to try to bridge ideological differences can be traced, according to Allegrucci, to two men: Her father, John Gilligan, who served as a Democratic congressman and governor in Ohio, and her father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, who represented Kansas as a Republican in Congress from 1968 to 1980 (He passed away in 1982.)

"She often talked politics and policy with her father-in-law and her dad," explained Allegrucci. "Often, they were not on the same page. She saw them not as personal differences but as policy differences."

If Obama is looking to double-down on his post-partisan message, Sebelius's success in Kansas -- a state, it's worth noting, where Obama's mother was born and raised -- is a powerful illustration that talk of bringing more light and less heat to the political process is more than a pipe dream.

The Final Glass Ceiling

There's little question that the protracted primary fight between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton left some lingering bad feelings -- particularly among women who felt the New York senator had been mistreated by the media and the Obama campaign.

What better way to heal that rift -- and avoid picking Clinton herself -- than naming a woman as his running mate, a decision that would make Sebelius only the second woman to be nominated for vice president by a major party. (The newly controversial Geraldine Ferraro was the first back in 1984 on a ticket that saw Sen. Walter Mondale lose 49 states to President Ronald Reagan.)

While it is a worthy debate as to whether the women most ardently supportive of Clinton would accept the choice of anyone other than their candidate as the VP nominee (more on that in the case against Sebelius tomorrow), for the vast majority of female voters it could provide considerable impetus to turn out in the fall.

Remember that women have made up a majority of all voters in the last two presidential elections -- 54 percent in 2004, 52 percent in 2000. And then there's the fact that the lack of a gender gap in 2004 may well have doomed John Kerry's chances of defeating George W. Bush: In 2000, Al Gore won women 54 percent to 43 percent over Bush; four years later, Kerry won women by a narrower 51 percent to 48 percent margin.

Those numbers provide a stark reminder for Democrats: Women comprise one of the most important -- if not the most important -- blocs of their winning coalition. Putting Sebelius on the ticket would almost certainly excite women across the country and ensure the reinstatement of the sort of gender gap Gore enjoyed in 2000.

Tomorrow: The case against Sebelius.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 11, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Veepstakes  
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