By JOHN HANNAAP Political Writer
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz launched a heartland tour in reliably GOP Kansas on Tuesday, saying he can win the presidential race as an independent candidate by drawing much of his support from disaffected Republicans.
Schultz spent part of a town hall meeting on the University of Kansas campus pushing back against Democrats' arguments that his running as an independent would help President Donald Trump win re-election in 2020 by splitting the anti-Trump vote. He said a campaign would have to get people who haven't been voting to the polls and tap support from independents, but added that he'd likely take many of his votes from Trump.
The Brooklyn-born billionaire has not formally declared his candidacy and said after the town hall that he expects to decide in early summer. He said if he runs, he expects more than 40 states to be in play in the presidential race, including red bastions like Texas and Kansas, where the GOP nominee has carried the state every presidential election after 1964.
"I think my potential candidacy will resonate," Schultz said after the town hall. "I'm very optimistic about and have great confidence in the American people's understanding of both how bad the political system is and the need for renewal."
Trump carried Kansas by nearly 21 percentage points in 2016, but during last year's mid-terms, Democrats won the governor's race and unseated Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in a Kansas City-area district where Trump proved to be unpopular. Schultz sees Kansas as in play partly because of Trump's trade policies, which he criticized strongly.
Schultz's audience of about two dozen people included students, local business representatives and people interested in independent or third-party politics. Among the latter was Scott Morgan, an ex-local school board member and former moderate Republican who left the GOP to lead an unsuccessful attempt to form a new "Party of the Center" in Kansas ahead of the 2018 elections.
Morgan said Schultz would be a plausible candidate partly because "it's such a bizarre time" and believes he would appeal to moderate Republicans who would not vote for a liberal Democratic candidate like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"If he really catches on and he's got the resources to do it, the impossible can happen," Morgan said. "But at a minimum, he's got the resources to disrupt."
Kansas Republicans remain confident that Trump will carry the state again no matter how the presidential race shapes up. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot received nearly 27 percent of the vote, among his best showings in the nation, but then-President George H.W. Bush still won Kansas.
"We will deliver to our nominee — I mean President Trump and in the future, the Republican nominee — for years to come," said Kelly Arnold, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman.
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