Archive for Thursday, November 5, 1998

S WIN: ONE FOR BOOKS, PROF SAYS

November 5, 1998

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Political science majors can study Dennis Moore's victory over Vince Snowbarger as a textbook example of how to knock off an incumbent.

Dennis Moore accepted an early birthday present and the BBC secured a compelling storyline.

Vince Snowbarger responded to it Wednesday with silence.

Moore, who turns 53 on Sunday, forged an improbable victory Tuesday over Snowbarger, the incumbent in the 3rd Congressional District. A three-member crew with British Broadcasting Corp. devoted a week to capture behind-the-scenes images of a well-financed, methodical campaign to undermine a Republican incumbent in one of the nation's most Republican states.

"Very remarkable," said BBC producer Jeremy Cooper. "There is great interest in American politics. This is a great American contest."

Snowbarger, who narrowly won election to the U.S. House in 1996 over a novice political candidate, met his match in Moore, a former three-term Johnson County district attorney, one-time state attorney general candidate and prominent Lenexa defense attorney.

Political observers knew Moore could mount a significant challenge to Snowbarger, but the incumbent advantage left some to doubt Moore would become the first Democrat to win the district since it was reconfigured in 1962.

Moore responded by raising about $1 million for the race and drew upon dozens of volunteers who worked since the August primary to court likely Moore voters -- especially in Johnson and Wyandotte counties -- and get them to the polls. Moore made Social Security a battleground issue, charging Snowbarger with expressing interest in phasing it out. Moore also managed to define himself as a moderate and label Snowbarger as an extreme conservative who didn't reflect the ideals of a politically centrist, demographically diverse and generally prosperous district.

"Social Security was big, but there was no silver bullet," said Chris Steineger, Moore's field director. "Dennis was a very likable candidate. Vince was not."

Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University professor writing an analysis of the Moore-Snowbarger race, said the campaign was drawn from the modern political playbook. Use polling to assess moods, focus groups to test messages and advertising to mold attitudes. Keep the foe off balance. Dictate the issue agenda. Finish with a massive get-out-the-vote effort.

"This campaign, this victory, is a national story," Loomis said.

Snowbarger had reason to be confident early in the campaign. He was an incumbent Republican, the economy was sound and the opposing party's president was suffocating in scandal. In Moore, Snowbarger saw a "big-spending liberal" in the mold of Ted Kennedy.

"This is the same liberal Democrat philosophy that we faced two years ago," Snowbarger said on the campaign trail. "The people of the 3rd District rejected it then, and I think they'll do that again."

Indeed, only six of 401 House incumbents in this election were denied another term in Congress.

Snowbarger just happened to be among the half dozen to fall.

Final unofficial results gave Moore more than 102,000 votes, or 52 percent, to less than 93,000, or 48 percent, for Snowbarger. Moore beat Snowbarger 2-to-1 in heavily Democratic Wyandotte County and carried Douglas County by 3,600. Moore was within 7,000 votes of Snowbarger in largely Republican Johnson County. In contrast, Snowbarger took Johnson County by a 30,000-vote margin in 1996 to defeat Democrat Judy Hancock.

"We needed to do better in Johnson County," Snowbarger spokesman Phil LaCerte said Wednesday. "It's a clear victory for Dennis."

Snowbarger called to congratulate Moore late Tuesday night, but declined to publicly concede the race. The congressman wasn't available to comment Wednesday about the election.

The Moore celebration at a Johnson County golf course brought together folks who walked precincts, staffed telephone banks, distributed campaign brochures and donated cash to bring Moore to the political winner's circle.

"We worked very hard," said Harvey Bodker of Overland Park. "There's nothing different we could have done."

His wife, Beverly, said they were drawn to Moore because he had a track record as an honest, sincere man.

"He's a man of the people," she said. "He represents all the people."

General Motors plant worker Bob Madrigal, wearing a jacket proclaiming his loyalty to Local 31 of the United Auto Workers, said his union brethren backed Moore because it was apparent he would be more responsive to labor than Snowbarger.

"He is interested in the working class -- union and non-union."

At Snowbarger's headquarters, Valerie Childers stood in a hall near the room where Snowbarger's staff received the disturbing voter updates from the four-county district. The Olathe retiree worked as a volunteer on the congressman's campaign. She spoke without restraint about the loss.

"I thought Dennis Moore was a weasel," Childers said. "I thought his campaign was misleading."

Moore said he had no reason to apologize for his campaign. He credited Snowbarger with mounting an aggressive re-election bid.

"This has been a real ordeal for our family," he said. "It's been worth it. I'm just glad it's over."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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