The congressional race in the 3rd District, which includes Lawrence, may shape up to be the state's most compelling political skirmish.
Challengers for public office enjoy being pegged as contenders by political pundits. Incumbents abhor being stamped as ripe for sacking.
But that's the view regarding a probable general election showdown between Rep. Vince Snowbarger, R-Kan., and former Johnson County Dist. Atty. Dennis Moore.
Analysts have proclaimed a Moore-Snowbarger matchup in the state's 3rd Congressional District, which includes Lawrence, an even bet.
The latest authority to reach that conclusion, The Cook Political Report, says Snowbarger appears to be the only vulnerable member of the state's four-member U.S. House delegation. The report says Reps. Jim Ryun, Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran, all Kansas Republicans, will likely coast to re-election.
``Snowbarger ... will be vulnerable to a strong challenge by a popular and well-funded Democrat,'' the report says.
As might be expected, Moore gets a kick out of the spin generated by Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Report.
``The polling we've done, articles in the weekly newsletters ... all say it's a toss up,'' Moore said. ``People perceive Mr. Snowbarger of having a fairly narrow base in the party and maybe in the district.''
Snowbarger, a social conservative elected to the U.S. House in 1996, said he has no intention of relinquishing the Republican Party's 37-year grip on the district.
He suggested voters in his four-county district -- Johnson, Wyandotte, Miami, Douglas -- would be better off ignoring Washington political junkies predicting his demise.
``All this is sort of inside-the-Beltway stuff,'' Snowbarger said. ``I don't take a lot of these reports seriously.''
Of course, Moore and Snowbarger would need to survive primary elections to set up a battle.
Dale Dana, a self-described mediation expert from Overland Park, filed to run against Moore in the Democratic primary. No one has entered the GOP primary to oppose Snowbarger.
Deadline for tossing a hat in the ring is Wednesday.
The Cook Report isn't the only publication to declare a Moore-Snowbarger race worth watching.
- The Rothenberg Political Report: ``Moore ... gets high marks from Democratic operatives. He is an impressive candidate who had twice the cash-on-hand as Snowbarger ... at the end of March. The district is quite Republican, but Moore's threat to Snowbarger is very real.''
- Roll Call: ``Voters have supported Republicans here in recent elections, but they traditionally back moderates over conservatives. That gives ... Moore an opportunity as he challenges Snowbarger, one of the 105th Congress's most conservative members.''
Assuming these reports are on the mark, Snowbarger and Moore will face off in a closely scrutinized campaign directed at affluent, well-educated people. Analysts know two-thirds of the district's voters live in Johnson County, which includes the prosperous suburbs of Kansas City.
The district encompasses Democratic-leaning Wyandotte County, which President Clinton carried in 1996, as well as the city of Lawrence. Miami County, in the southern part of the district, makes up less than 5 percent of the district.
Rep. Jan Meyers, who retired after six terms in the House, defended the district well, the Cook Report says. Her closest race was in 1994, when she won 57 percent of the vote.
In 1996, Snowbarger quit the Kansas House to seek Meyers' open seat in Congress. He wound up facing Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert, a social moderate like Meyers, in the GOP primary. Eilert attacked Snowbarger for his ties to the Christian Coalition and had the endorsement of Meyers and U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, but it wasn't enough. Snowbarger claimed 44 percent of the vote to Eilert's 40 percent.
Democrats expected Judy Hancock, a prolific fund-raiser with a moderate image, to succeed where Eilert failed. She didn't: Snowbarger, 50 percent; Hancock, 45 percent.
The Cook Report says Democrats believe Moore ``has the right profile, message and stature within the district to give Snowbarger a tough race'' this fall.
Moore, re-elected in 1997 to the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees, won election as Johnson County's DA in 1976 by defeating a GOP incumbent. He won two subsequent elections for district attorney and is a well-known criminal defense attorney.
In 1986, Moore ran an unsuccessful race for state attorney general. He lost to incumbent Republican Bob Stephan, but Moore did carry Johnson County by 20,000 votes.
The Cook Report notes Snowbarger clobbered Hancock in Johnson County by 31,000 votes, but came up 19,000 votes short in the rest of the district.
In terms of fund raising for this campaign, Moore has raised more money than any Kansas candidate for the U.S. House. He took in $143,000 in the first three months of the year, bringing his total to $227,000. Snowbarger, meanwhile, raised less than any other congressional candidate in the state. His tally was $33,000 for the period, which gave him a total of $189,000.
Snowbarger, who the Cook Report says ``has been underestimated before,'' possesses the incumbent advantage and retains his backbone of support among social conservatives. The strong national economy, government budget surpluses, soaring stock market and low unemployment won't hurt the congressman a bit.
The Cook Report says: ``As the only seriously contested House race in the state, this should be a high-profile contest. This race is a toss-up.''
Dale Neuman, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, said this election cycle would present the state's Democrats their best opportunity to unseat Snowbarger.
``It's important to go after someone before they become a well-established incumbent,'' he said. ``You go after folks very early in their political career or you wait until they retire.''
``If he's vulnerable, he's going to be vulnerable now.''
Neuman said Moore had proven he could be an effective campaigner, possessed good name recognition in the district and would likely appeal to middle-of-the road Republicans, independents and Democrats.
``There are moderate folks in Johnson County ... concerned about the machinations of the Republican candidate,'' he said.
Snowbarger is on the National Journal's list of most conservative House members. Congressional Quarterly claims Snowbarger voted in accordance with the wishes of Republican Party leaders in Washington 98 percent of the time last year.
Neuman said the test would be how many voters turn from Snowbarger to a candidate perceived to be more closely aligned with Larry Winn and Jan Meyers, moderate Republicans who previously represented the 3rd District.
Burdett Loomis, professor of political science and director of the Robert Dole Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Kansas University, is participating in a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. The project, coordinated by American University, will closely track key elections this fall. Loomis will chronicle a Snowbarger vs. Moore race.
``If Cook says it's a toss-up, then lots of people from party leaders to political action committee managers to outside interests regard it as a toss-up,'' Loomis said. ``It really does give Dennis Moore legitimacy.''
Loomis said signals from respected political publications that Moore is a credible challenger and that Snowbarger has a tenuous hold on the district could open the campaign-contribution floodgates for both candidates. The GOP will want to preserve its investment, while Democrats will be drawn to blood in the water.
``My sense is that someone like Moore, who is seen as having a legitimate chance to win, will attract substantial funding, as will Snowbarger. People will be looking for a place to make contributions. There is no question that it will be the most interesting race in the state.''
He cautioned that the current GOP environment in Johnson County is more conservative than when Moore won three elections for district attorney.
``It will be uphill for any Democrat.''
Third District voters appear to have a clear choice ahead of them.
Snowbarger is a conservative who opposes abortion, supports school vouchers and opposes gun control. Moore is a moderate who backs abortion rights, supports an assault weapons ban and opposes school vouchers.
Nationally, party activists are aware that Democrats need 11 Republican seats to regain a majority in the U.S. House.
Moore said he could play a role in making that happen because Snowbarger is ``out of step'' with a district more interested in good public policy than finger-pointing political parties.
``I may be a Democrat,'' Moore said, ``but when I'm elected to Congress, if a Democrat comes up with good legislation, I'll support that. By the same token, if a Republican comes up with good legislation, I'll support that.''
Snowbarger faithful have reason not to panic. Early primary election returns nationally suggest incumbents could fare well in 1998. The only congressional incumbent to lose so far has been Rep. Jay Kim, R-Calif. He was convicted of campaign finance fraud and prohibited by a judge from leaving Washington, D.C., to campaign for re-election.
``Frankly, when you look at the handicapping ... (and) I compare myself to where I was two years ago, I am worlds ahead,'' Snowbarger said. ``I'm surprised it comes out a toss-up.''
Snowbarger said he expects future issues of the political journals to indicate his seat will remain in Republican control. Pundits ought to know better than to conclude the district's voters want to send anything but an economic conservative to Washington, he said.
``The fact is that the Democratic Party is not conservative on economic matters,'' Snowbarger said.
In the final analysis, both candidates said, there is only one assessment worth remembering.
It's taken on Election Day at the ballot box, one voter at a time.
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is email@example.com.