Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal/AP
Republican Senate candidates Jerry Moran (left) and Todd Tiahrt shake hands after their first televised debate July 6 at the studio of NBC affiliate KSNT-27, in Topeka. The debate was moderated by Bob Beatty and Kelli Stegeman.
Republican Senate candidates Jerry Moran (left) and Todd Tiahrt shake hands after their first televised debate July 6 at the studio of NBC affiliate KSNT-27, in Topeka. The debate was moderated by Bob Beatty and Kelli Stegeman. Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal/AP
Kansas Republicans go to the polls next month to choose their nominee for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Sam Brownback, who is leaving Congress to run for governor.
And the Aug. 3 GOP primary is likely to determine the next senator from Kansas. The state hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
Brownback's would-be successors, Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt — both GOP members of the House — share what to the naked eye would seem almost identical voting records in Congress. Nonetheless, each is trying to convince voters that he has the most conservative credentials.
On a recent day, Moran stands before a crowd crackling with energy in the VFW Hall of Olathe, a suburb west of Kansas City. The Republican Senate candidate is here to tout his own credentials — and to introduce a key backer: GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, a man sometimes billed as "Senator Tea Party."
DeMint is defined in Washington by what he opposes — which is just about all spending programs, the immigration overhaul proposed by President Bush and pretty much anything the Obama administration wants.
To this crowd, DeMint is a rock star.
"All we need is a few new recruits in the Senate who aren't afraid of anybody — who, when Obama says, 'Yes, we can,' will stand up and say, 'No, you won't,' " DeMint tells them.
Moran is one of the recruits DeMint hopes to have on his side next year. The congressman has represented Kansas' vast 1st District for seven terms in Washington. His opponent, Tiahrt, a Wichita Republican, has been in Congress for eight terms. Tiahrt has some big-name endorsements too, including that of Sarah Palin.
But DeMint says there's a difference.
"Sarah has done a lot of good, but I don't think she knows the candidates as well as I do, and I think ... what I need in the Senate [are] people who really stand with the voices of America and who will help represent this awakening that's going on all across the country," DeMint says. "I know when I'm in a battle that Jerry Moran will stand with the people of Kansas and the people all around the country."
Bucking The Party
DeMint and Moran share the same Capitol Hill townhouse on C Street, along with several other lawmakers. Moran was cleared by a House Office of Congressional Ethics probe looking into whether he and others were paying below-market rents for the space.
In Congress, Moran has mostly but not always been a reliable vote for Republican leaders. He proudly points to one of the few times he bucked the party, over the prescription drug benefit that then-President Bush and GOP leaders wanted to add to Medicare.
"For 3 1/2 hours they twisted Republican arms to vote for a bill that was going to increase the deficit by $700 billion," he says. "I was one of those who said no. That's the difference between me and my opponent."
In a TV ad, Moran also charges that Tiahrt once supported a bill that would have given in-state tuition discounts to the children of illegal immigrants.
Tiahrt's ads, in turn, go after Moran for allegedly voting to allow tax hikes.
Piling Up Endorsements
In the tiny town of Oswego, Tiahrt — dressed in a yellow polo shirt with the letter T and a heart embroidered on the sleeve — walks into Frogley's Gun Shop. The walls are lined with rifles and stuffed trophy heads, deer mostly.
"What happens [is] guys shoot these and then they get 'em mounted and then their wives won't let 'em hang 'em in the house," explains store owner Larry Conley. "That's how they end up here."
In a corner of Frogley's stands a life-size cardboard cutout of Palin. Tiahrt jokingly asks Conley if it's his girlfriend — and then notes that the former Alaska governor endorsed him for the Senate.
That endorsement appeared on Palin's Facebook page. Tiahrt is hoping for less virtual and more tangible support, but she hasn't yet agreed to an actual campaign appearance.
Tiahrt has a long list of other conservative endorsements, including the backing of such icons as Sean Hannity and James Dobson. Tiahrt says it's proof "I am the conservative in the race" and adds that, in Kansas terms, Moran is a moderate.
Tiahrt has been through his own ethics investigation, following charges he improperly obtained earmarks for a lobbying group. He was cleared by the House Ethics Committee.
Despite all the big-name backers, Tiahrt has not been able to match Moran in fundraising and trails him in recent polls by as many as 20 points.
Tiahrt says he's not concerned.
"The grass-roots organizations that get boots on the ground have all supported me, and in primaries — more so than in generals — grass-roots have a significant, powerful impact on the outcome of elections," Tiahrt says. "So I'm very comfortable where I'm at."