Typically, the Federal Communications Commission is viewed as a boring-but-important regulatory gig one can later leverage into a cushy position at a D.C. trade association. But with Trump-appointed chairman Ajit Pai at the helm, the job may instead be a stepping-stone for the Kansas native’s latent political ambitions.
Those close to Pai say he’s rarely—if ever—given voice to those plans. “You know, Ajit, he’s a good attorney,” said Riley Scott, a former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and a friend of Pai’s from their time in Sam Brownback’s Senate office in the late 1990s. “He doesn’t typically tip his hand.”
But the sense that the Republican head of the FCC is positioning himself to run for something pervades both Kansas GOP politics and Washington’s tech and telecom ecosystem. It goes far beyond Pai’s ubiquitous Twitter presence, or the hokey “Big Lebowski” quotes with which he peppers his public appearances.
The chairman raised eyebrows when he delivered a politics-laden speech, entitled “Morning in Digital America,” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Tuesday. Earlier this year, he engaged in a media blitz that—while ostensibly designed to increase support for his plan to roll back the FCC’s net-neutrality rules—also served to raise his stature among conservative outlets.
Despite having lived in Washington for decades, Pai has always carved out time to address problems plaguing his home state. And two Kansas GOP operatives told National Journal that Pai had recently been approached to run for office in the Sunflower State—a sign that the Republican Party sees a bright future for the FCC chair.
“I definitely think he’s going to run,” said a former longtime Capitol Hill staffer and Kansas Republican operative. “I mean, I’d put it at 90 percent that he’s going to run for governor or Senate.”
“People in Kansas who want to elect Republicans certainly hope that Ajit wants to run at some point,” Scott said.
Pai grew up in Parsons, a small town near the Oklahoma border centered in one of the most rural corners of Kansas. But he’s been a creature of Washington since 1998, when he joined then-Sen. Brownback’s staff as chief counsel. He was appointed FCC commissioner in 2012, quickly earning a reputation for an incisive understanding of telecommunications policy.
He also arrived at the commission just as it was becoming increasingly politicized. Tom Wheeler, the Obama-appointed chairman at the time, was using a controversial interpretation of the Communications Act to push for new net-neutrality protections. Pai often acted as Wheeler’s foil in these high-profile debates—a stance some at the FCC believe was, in part, calculated for its political impact.
“Historically, FCC commissioners have disagreed about a lot of things, but he has a new edge that he brought to FCC politics and policymaking,” said one FCC official, who’s worked on the commission throughout Pai’s tenure and believes the chairman is much more interested in political office than his predecessors. “He seems to have been positioning himself for this ever since he came on the national political scene as a commissioner,” the official said.
It’s not just the speeches lionizing Ronald Reagan, or the multiple sit-downs with Breitbart News and other conservative outlets, that are fueling the speculation. In his capacity as commissioner, Pai has always found time to visit Kansas, and the attention focused on his home state has only escalated since he became chairman. Pai visited Parsons and other parts of Kansas last month, and he is a frequent op-ed contributor in The Wichita Eagle and other local papers. “He could go full D.C. if he wanted, and forget Kansas,” said the Kansas operative. “He’s not done that; he’s done the opposite. There’s always a little bit of Kansas in the background. And that, I think, is political.”
Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, said Pai “has no plans to run for office and is aggressively focused on bridging the digital divide, modernizing regulations, and increasing transparency at the FCC.”
Pai has long advocated FCC policies that would expand broadband connectivity into rural areas. The chairman never fails to note his Kansas upbringing while discussing rural broadband. David Kensinger, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff for Gov. Brownback, believes broadband’s successful expansion into rural Kansas would make a dynamite campaign issue for Pai. “That’d be as big for him as rural electrification was for George McGovern or Lyndon Johnson,” Kensinger said.
National Republicans have taken note of Pai’s charisma and policy chops. When Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced early this year that she would not seek reelection in Kansas’s 2nd District—which includes Parsons—Kensinger says Pai received an inquiry from the National Republican Congressional Committee about running to take her place. The Kansas operative and former Hill staffer, meanwhile, suggested that another Kansas operative had reached out to Pai on behalf of House Speaker Paul Ryan (himself a Brownback alum), also seeking to gauge interest. “Paul Ryan and Ajit are very close,” the operative said. “Lynn Jenkins—when she decided she’s not running again for the 2nd District, I’m very sure that somebody reached out.”
So why didn’t Pai take a chance on the House seat? Although those close to him say he’s focused on seeing his chairmanship through, it’s also understood that Pai isn’t keen on becoming a backbencher in the House. “He’s in such a visible position, and a position to do a lot of good on issues that he cares about,” said Scott. “He’d have to spend a lot of time in the House to get to a similar position of stature, where he could impact policy issues and areas that he cares about.”
“It’s below him, I think,” the Kansas operative said. “Everything I’ve heard is it’s Senate.”
Not everyone in Kansas is bullish on Pai’s prospects, which likely remain several years off at the earliest. Even as a Trump appointee, Pai could have trouble shaking off the stench of “The Swamp” in ruby-red Kansas. The FCC chairman also has virtually zero name recognition in the state, and is known for the kind of cerebral, policy-focused politicking that’s increasingly anathema in today’s Trump-dominated GOP. An unusual name (both of Pai’s parents are immigrants from India) is unlikely to help much, either. And it’s hard to predict when an open seat will appear—particularly in the Senate, where Sen. Pat Roberts’ possible 2020 retirement will likely to come too soon and Moran is not expected to relinquish his own seat in 2022.
When it comes to the most formidable hurdle—name recognition—Pai’s deep Rolodex from his years in D.C. could help raise the millions of dollars needed for an all-out ad blitz. “If I’m his manager, we focus on money—scaring everybody else out of the race with that first quarter,” the Kansas operative said.
As for broader concerns about the GOP’s pivot away from candidates like Pai, Scott believes that could prove a challenge—but that it’s hardly insurmountable. “It’d be an interesting test case,” he said. “I think if anyone were able to overcome those issues, it’d be a guy like Ajit, who is an incredibly smart person with his heart in the right place, and so down-to-earth at the same time.”