LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Moderate Republicans have come under attack in primaries across the country this year, but the split in the GOP is perhaps older and sharper in Kansas, and it comes to a head on Tuesday.
JIM DENNING: I think the lines have been drawn in the sand, bridges have been burned. Everybody is all-in on this election.
WERTHEIMER: That's Jim Denning, one of the conservative candidates for state senate. The Republican statehouse primary is a savage fight, fueled by money from the Koch brothers and labor unions with major consequences for the citizens of Kansas. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: When it comes to the political map, Kansas isn't just red - it's a stoplight, it's molten lava. The Republicans hold every congressional seat, all the big statewide offices and both chambers of the legislature. But despite their lock on power, Kansas Republicans don't generally get along.
STATE SENATOR TIM OWENS: We are our own worst enemy.
MORRIS: Tim Owens is a state senator, struggling to stay that way.
OWENS: We've met the enemy and the enemy is us.
MORRIS: Owens is waging one of the toughest campaigns in his 30-year political career. Today, he's dispensing yard signs at a strip mall in his prosperous suburban Kansas City district.
OWENS: Five or six?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, that'll be fine.
OWENS: Is that enough?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, that'll be enough.
MORRIS: And examining some of the mailings bombarding his constituents.
OWENS: Oh, here's a couple of them there. Obama sought a robot and found one. And then they've got Obama and me, which is absolutely ridiculous.
MORRIS: Now, Owens a lifelong Republican, so this is pretty scandalous stuff, and it's coming from his own party.
OWENS: The conservative today is a far cry from what the conservative was when I was growing up. It's angry, it's hateful, it's anti.
DENNING: Being a conservative Republican, I'm not crazy. I'm not vicious. I'm a very reasonable human being.
MORRIS: That's Jim Denning, who's challenging Jim Owens. Denning says moderates have stepped way out of line. They've teamed up with the few Democrats in the state senate to block stridently conservative legislation coming from the state house and the governor's office.
JEFF MELCHER: There is a party for people who want big government and high taxation - that's the Democrat Party - and that's where a lot of the moderates belong.
MORRIS: That's Jeff Melcher, who runs an IT firm called Net Standard and is vying for a state senate seat now held by a moderate. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, says these races are drawing big bucks.
KRIS KOBACH: You know, it's coming from all different sources within the state of Kansas and outside of the state of Kansas. You have organizations, interest groups, unions, individuals.
MORRIS: Moderate Republicans have made common cause with some of the state's biggest labor unions. Meantime, Wichita-based Koch Industries, owned by the famously activist Koch brothers has been fueling conservative campaigns. And Burdett Loomis at the University of Kansas says it is strange to see Senator Sam Brownback working to dismantle power incumbents within his own party.
BURDETT LOOMIS: To have this kind of absolutely brutal internecine warfare is certainly unprecedented.
MORRIS: Though not completely unexpected. Conservatives like Melcher want to change the way schools are funded, deepen budget cuts and eliminate state income taxes. He says he's sick of moderate Republicans standing in the way.
MELCHER: The moderates have had their chance and it was a failure.
PAT COLLOTON: Johnson County doesn't think we're failing.
MORRIS: Pat Colloton's running against Melcher to represent the 11th Senate District in well-heeled Johnson County.
COLLOTON: The Johnson County businesses want to keep what we've got. We don't want to lose it to a completely different model, these grand ideological plans, speculative ideas of the Koch brothers.
MORRIS: There's one thing moderate and conservative Republicans in Kansas agree on: this election is going to be one of the most important in state history. Looks like turnout, however, will be a little light on Tuesday, when perhaps only one-fifth of registered Republicans vote on the future of Kansas. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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