Republican moderates are the key to winning the seat held by retiring U.S. Rep. Jan Meyers, R-Kan., say Democrats and Republicans.
Republican Vince Snowbarger isn't exactly running scared these days, despite recent media accounts that he is slightly behind Democrat Judy Hancock in the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat.
That's because Snowbarger knows the votes are out there in the GOP-dominated district, if he can win them over.
"I think it's fair to say it's a close race," Snowbarger said last week following a speech at a Lawrence Chamber of Commerce gathering.
Snowbarger defeated Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert, a moderate, in the Aug. 6 primary for retiring Republican Jan Meyers' congressional seat. And that upset moderates worried about the party's takeover by conservative activists and Christian conservatives.
The big question is can moderate Republicans vote for Vince?
"We have not had anyone turn us down," Snowbarger said. "We think everyone is on board. ... It's going to be a broad-based campaign."
And he knows Hancock is also trying to appeal to Republicans who prefer Eilert's moderate brand of politics.
"I'm not naive. There are some folks who I disagree with on issues seriously enough where they'll not back me," Snowbarger said. "But what people don't take into account is on some other issues where we disagree on, Democrats disagree with her. And obviously, we're going to try to tap into that base and pull Democrats away from her."
It's still early. He pointed out the two candidates would have several opportunities to debate the issues before the Nov. 5 election.
"Snowbarger is aware of the problems he has with the political moderates in the Republican Party," said Russell Getter, a Kansas University associate professor of political science and government.
"There are Republicans who, politically speaking, are homeless right now," Getter said. "They can't see themselves supporting a Democrat but they're not comfortable with social conservatism, which is part of this new ideology."
And that's why Snowbarger has been seeking out GOP moderate leaders to ask them to help out, Getter said.
For example, Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, gave his endorsement to Snowbarger last week.
And Wint Winter Jr., a former Lawrence state senator, is jumping on the Snowbarger bandwagon, despite having chaired Eilert's Douglas County campaign in the six-way GOP primary.
Winter is one of several sponsors for a $100-a-plate fund-raising reception for Snowbarger Oct. 1 at the Lawrence Depot.
Although Snowbarger wasn't his first choice, Winter said he still has confidence in Snowbarger's abilities. And he doesn't consider Snowbarger extreme.
"I think a number of moderates will come home and vote Republican so that Vince will win the race," Winter said. "He is not a mean, sharp-edged conservative."
Winter noted that Hancock will try to blur the party lines and woo moderate Republicans.
"She's going to try to tie a can to his tail in the form of Newt Gingrich," Winter said. "And he'll try to tie a Tip O'Neill or Ted Kennedy can to her. ... I think it will come down to the fact that it's a very strong Republican district."
There hasn't been a Democrat elected to the 3rd Congressional District seat for 38 years, admits Jeremy Anderson, Hancock's press secretary.
Anderson said the district, which includes Lawrence and eastern Douglas County and all of Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami counties, is split 40 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 30 percent unaffiliated voters.
However, there have been 20-plus Democrats running statewide races in recent years who have carried the 3rd Congressional District, including President Bill Clinton and former Gov. Joan Finney, Anderson said.
Anderson said Hancock's own polls show she is now 9 percentage points ahead of Snowbarger, plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Race a bellwether
Anderson said national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, are citing the race as one to watch.
"It's not the Republican district that people thought it was," Anderson said.
The Journal wrote that Hancock has tagged Snowbarger as "too far to the right for the district" and said she has opened a slight lead.
Cook's Political Report, a Washington, D.C., based non-partisan publication, has rated the seat as a toss-up since June, Anderson said.
Also, Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst whose column appears on the CNN and Time All Politics page on the World Wide Web, highlighted the 3rd District race as a national bellwether last week.
Rothenberg wrote that the race "is so important because it mirrors races where Democrats hope to use divisions within the Republican party between moderates and conservatives to take over GOP-leaning districts."
Endorsements could fail
KU political analysts are skeptical moderate Republicans will be swayed by endorsements.
"I would be surprised if Graves and Winter are able to influence very many Republican moderates in this kind of an election," Getter said.
Ken Collier, an assistant professor of political science and government, said the Graves and the Winter endorsements mean "Republicans don't turn on Republicans.
"Wint and the moderates don't have any choice but to endorse a Republican," Collier said.
Getter said Graves endorsement of his former lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, didn't help her beat U.S. Rep. Sam Brownback, a conservative, in the GOP primary for Bob Dole's former Senate seat.
"The governor pulled out all the stops and it didn't work," Getter said. "The challenge that faces Judy Hancock is trying to make those disaffected Republicans and independents comfortable in voting for her as a Democrat. If she is successful in doing that, she will be able, perhaps, to win. But it's a mighty tall order."
The most likely response of voters caught in a quandary?
"Stay home," Getter said.