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Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Tiahrt opponents will have work cut out for them

July 10, 2000

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— Democrats and the labor union leaders who are their traditional allies insist they can unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt this year.

However, they qualify their optimistic statements with "ifs": if their candidate can raise enough money, for example.

Tiahrt will be difficult to defeat, and it's more likely than not that he'll be returning to Washington in January for a fourth term representing the 4th Congressional District.

His status as an incumbent helps him, and, though conservative, he has managed to keep enough moderates on his side to avoid any serious political problems within the GOP.

"It's never easy to knock off an incumbent," acknowledged state Democratic Chairman Tom Sawyer.

Tiahrt was a state senator known for his strong opposition to abortion and his support for legislation that would permit Kansans to carry concealed firearms when he first ran for Congress in 1994.

He relied on an army of conservative activists and that year's national Republican surge to unseat Democrat Dan Glickman, an 18-year congressional veteran.

The 4th District covers 10 counties in south-central Kansas, plus a small part of southern Marion County. The city of Wichita dominates because of its size, and 64 percent of the district's registered voters live in Sedgwick County.

Tiahrt faces no opponent in the Aug. 1 primary, nor does Democrat Carlos Nolla. A Libertarian, Steve Rosile, also will be on the general election ballot.

Democrats do have reasons to be optimistic every two years.

Registration numbers -- nearly 44 percent of voters are Republicans and more than 29 percent are Democrats -- favor the GOP but aren't hopeless for the minority party. Parts of Wichita are Democratic strongholds.

Also, the district is compact geographically and served by a single television market. That means a candidate can reach most of the district's voters with television ads relatively easily, albeit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition, any Democrat is likely to have strong backing from labor unions because of Tiahrt's anti-union voting record. Wayne Maichel, the Kansas AFL-CIO's executive vice president, calls Tiahrt's record on union issues "very poor."

"I think any incumbent is hard to beat, but as they alienate different constituents, that can happen," Maichel said.

Democrats have recruited a good candidate in Nolla, too. He is a Wichita attorney, a relatively young family man, attractive and articulate, and a former member of the state Governmental Ethics Commission.

However, he's still got a tough job ahead of him and is definitely the underdog.

"It really demonstrates the power of incumbency," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. "You'd better have a strong candidate and seven figures of financing."

Loomis believes a Democrat would have to spend between $1 million and $1.5 million to unseat Tiahrt. Sawyer's estimate is smaller but still substantial, $750,000.

If Tiahrt faces the wrath of organized labor -- as he has every two years since he took office -- that fact guarantees him the strong financial support of business and conservative organizations.

He's also a member of the House Appropriations Committee and has worked to bring federal dollars to Kansas. For example, he won support this year for more than $62 million worth of military projects related to Kansas, about $36 million more than President Clinton proposed.

"He's become a pretty effective politician," Loomis said.

Tiahrt's conservatism also doesn't appear to be much of a political liability, despite Sawyer's claim that the congressman is too far to the right for the 4th District.

Conservative Republicans have been a strong political force in the 4th District for at least a decade. When moderates recaptured the state GOP organization in 1998, conservatives lost their hold on the leadership in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts, but not in the 4th.

In addition, Tiahrt has worked to keep moderates as supporters, most notably by publicly giving support to moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves during his 1998 general election re-election campaign.

"Tiahrt has changed his image a hell of a lot," said Pete McGill, a former state House speaker who remains active in GOP politics.

McGill added: "A lot of those people who thought he was too far to the right have changed their minds."

And Loomis said: "For a lot of Republicans in Wichita, he isn't their first choice, but they can live with him."

The fact that moderate Republicans can live with Tiahrt and his status as an incumbent makes the 4th District congressman difficult to beat.

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