Republican candidates are leading in Kansas' two U.S. Senate races.
A new Journal-World poll shows that Republican Pat Roberts is a strong favorite to win fellow Republican Nancy Kassebaum's seat in the U.S. Senate, leading Democrat Sally Thompson by 25 percentage points.
The J-W poll also reveals that Republican Sam Brownback is having a tougher time in his quest to win Bob Dole's former Senate seat, holding only a 5-point lead over Democrat Jill Docking.
"Docking is in the game, but the bottom line is Brownback is still ahead," said Brad Coker, head of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research Inc., Washington, D.C., which conducted the poll for the J-W. "If I had to bet a nickel, I would still bet on Brownback."
Statewide, 54 percent of voters support Roberts, the congressman from the state's 1st District, while only 29 percent back Thompson, the state treasurer, with 17 percent undecided, according to the telephone survey of 838 Kansas registered likely voters, which was taken Saturday through Monday. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent.
Not Pat Robertson
The J-W poll showed Roberts has continued to expand his lead the past two months, widening the 11-point margin he had in July.
"As soon as voters found out that Roberts was a west Kansas congressman and not a Virginia Beach tele-evangelist, he was in pretty good shape," Coker said. Roberts' earlier high negatives in a June J-W poll had been attributed to voter confusion over the similarity of his name with Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, Coker said.
"He's actually had a 10 (percent) or 11 percent drop in his negatives, which reflect people learning who he is not," Coker said.
Stuck in the mud
In contrast, Thompson hasn't done much since June to improve her name recognition in the state, Coker said.
"Stuck in the mud is probably a pretty good metaphor. She has absolutely not gone anywhere," Coker said. "To me, the most interesting numbers are the people who don't recognize her. ... She's flat-lined. Nothing's gone up in terms of her identification. That's not a good sign. It seems to me they're spinning their wheels."
Russell Getter, a Kansas University associate professor of political science and government, said Roberts has been running negative television ads about Thompson, which could account for some of his lead.
Money means TV
Kansas, at 82,000 square miles, is so large the only way to reach the electorate is with television, Getter said.
"He appears to have enough money to run those ads about her," Getter said. "First, you have to have television ads to run in a state this large. And the second, negative campaigning appears to work."
Thus far, Thompson has not run any negative ads about Roberts, Getter said.
"That may signal she does not have enough money to run ads or that she does not want to run negative ads about Roberts," Getter said.
Campaigns both confident
Ted Miller, Thompson's press secretary, said the poll was taken at a time when Thompson was just beginning to put her ads on television.
"We're confident that in the next six weeks that voters will see the big difference in the two candidates and that his support will begin to peel off," Miller said.
Miller said because Roberts "went negative first," it indicates his campaign is worried that he is vulnerable.
"Why would somebody who thought he had a big lead go negative so early," Miller said. "We're confident our strength will come through in the end when it counts."
Leroy Towns, Roberts' campaign manager, wasn't surprised by Roberts' 25-point lead.
"Those figures are almost precisely what our continuing polling have been showing," Towns said. "I think they're proof that Kansas is responding to the positive message of the congressman's record and his ability to continue tax reform, congressional reform and budget reform."
Polls affect funding
Getter said when poll numbers show candidates slipping, it sends signals that giving money to Thompson is not likely to result in her winning.
"After a while, it becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy: She's behind, so she doesn't get money, so she can't increase her name recognition," he said.
In contrast, the Docking-Brownback race is probably attracting money not only from Kansas, but also from outside the state for both candidates, Getter said.
"Symbolically, it's Dole's seat," Getter said. "And I think for symbolic reasons, the Republicans will want to hold on to that seat even if it costs them a lot of money. So I would imagine Brownback has all the money he can use."
Docking leads in suburbs
The J-W poll shows Brownback now holds a 45-40 lead statewide over Docking, with 15 percent undecided. That lead has narrowed somewhat since July, when Brownback held a 41 percent to 32 percent advantage.
Coker said the seat is winnable for Docking, but the playing field in Kansas usually favors the Republicans.
The J-W poll shows that Docking has a slight lead in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Lawrence and the Kansas City suburban area.
"The Kansas City suburbs are more typical of what we're seeing nationwide," Coker said. "Democrats are making inroads in what are normally upper-middle class suburban enclaves nationwide."
Docking moves to center
Coker said Docking's campaign strategy, to run as a centrist, is what Democrats have to do in Kansas to get elected.
"She's in the game, so you can't fault that strategy," he said. "The way Democrats win in states that are normally considered Republican leaning is they hold Democratic men and they attract Republican women. She's a threat to have some appeal with Republican women. Where we see that happening is in suburban communities where there are a lot of working mothers and two-income families. That's really where she needs to continue to build her strength."
Coker said the Brownback-Docking race is drawing national interest because it is an area where a conservative Republican who won against a GOP moderate in a primary is ahead in the general election.
"The Brownback race is interesting to see if social conservatives and religious conservatives can nominate a candidate and get them through a general as well," Coker said.
Spinning the numbers
Scott Swenson, communications director for Docking, said the J-W poll numbers showing Docking down five points were "great news."
"As voters get to know Jill Docking as the centrist she is and as they get to know Brownback and his support from the far right and his commitment to that group, they will continue to go for Jill Docking," Swenson said. "Brownback is having problems with his base and people are skeptical of his far right agenda."
Dave Kensinger, Brownback's deputy campaign manager, said every survey that has been conducted shows Brownback's lead is growing.
"And we've only started television advertising this week," Kensinger said.
"Once folks get to know that Jill Docking was the state campaign director for (former Democratic presidential candidate) Michael Dukakis and learn that she even opposes the balanced budget amendment, they will recognize her for the Massachusetts liberal that she is."