It's known as the "Big 1st."
It includes 69 counties, a quarter of the state's population and about two-thirds of its area.
And for the past eight years, Rep. Jerry Moran has returned nearly every weekend of the session to visit the sprawling 1st Congressional District he represents.
Figuring he was well-tuned to Middle America, we asked to ride along as he checked in with constituents during the long Independence Day recess. Over parts of three days, he covered nearly 750 miles of the western end of the state.
It was noontime in Burdett, population 237, and the senior center in this tiny western Kansas community was humming. About 60 people, double the usual Monday turnout, were working their way along a covered-dish bounty of meatloaf, beans of all kinds, pickled beets, Jell-O and cakes heavy with white icing.
Moran, a Republican, led the line on one side of the table. He dished food onto a Styrofoam plate, listening with one ear to a farmer while greeting others across the table, many by name, with smiles and handshakes. He looked like he was having fun.
"I have fond memories of campaigning in Burdett," he said from behind the podium after lunch, "both as a state senator and as a member of Congress. You were all very friendly. I was never bitten by a dog or stung by a bee."
Most in the audience beamed.
He talked about the challenges ahead for Kansans in their struggle to keep rural America alive.
"I'm convinced that if we lose doctors and hospitals, our home health care agencies and nursing homes ... we lose our communities," he said, ignoring the microphone and walking to one side of the room.
He added that "young people will not risk raising their families where there is not access to health care, and seniors will reluctantly move away ... closer to doctors and hospitals."
He spent about 10 minutes on health-care issues and then asked if anyone had questions.
"Yes, Karen," Moran said, pointing to a table.
"What about the Medicare prescription issue, the card?" Karen Schadel asked.
Moran asked for a show of hands from people who had gotten a prescription card.
Two or three hands rose slowly.
"Anyone find they're valuable?" he asked, smiling.
There were a few moans and muffled laughter.
"Good," he said loudly, like he'd just won the coin toss. "I voted against that plan."
The room erupted in laughter.
"Before you put a prescription benefit in Medicare, what we ought to be looking into is why drugs cost so darned much in the first place," he said, still moving through the room.
He walked back to the microphone.
"We already know that the prescription plan has gone from $490 billion to $560 billion, and by the time we're done it's anticipated that it will be a $3 trillion or $4 trillion plan."
He said the tab would be picked up by taxpayers, "and in the future by our children and grandchildren."
Moran talked about his 89-year-old father, a retired oilfield worker who lives in Plainville, north of Hays. He doesn't like to visit the doctor.
"He thinks the doctor will find something wrong with him and he doesn't want to know that," Moran said. "He drinks coffee every morning at the drug store with his pharmacist. He takes his blood pressure and they discuss his medications."
Moving back into the tables and chairs, Moran continued, "With this new plan we'll order our drugs by mail and on the Internet, and our local pharmacist will be gone."
People asked about Iraq, judges gone out of control, how long Social Security would hold up, and the gay marriage amendment then before the U.S. Senate, which subsequently defeated it.
Evelyn Mettling raised her hand.
"Where do you stand on same-sex marriages?" she asked softly.
Moran smiled broadly, then turned serious.
"We are considering ... the Senate is considering a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman," he said looking around the room.
"That makes a lot of sense," Moran said.
He said the issue came up when he was a state senator.
"I voted to define marriage that way in Kansas, and the concern we must have today is that a court may determine that marriage in Massachusetts is the law of the land and Kansas would have to recognize that marriage in our state," he said.
As the luncheon was closing, Pawnee County Sheriff Leon Shearrer used the microphone to thank Moran for getting a grant for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to "fight our meth lab problem."
Shearrer said in previous years his county had more illegal methamphetamine labs per capita than any Kansas county.
"This year we've taken down 25 labs and are way down the list, thanks to the money and equipment supplied by Jerry's subcommittee."
Moran worked his way toward the front door through outstretched hands and words of thanks.
"He seems honest and truthful, and I've liked him ever since he's been coming to the senior center," said Frances Ankrom, 85.
Moran headed his car down Kansas Highway 156 toward Jetmore and the Hodgeman County Health Center.
"A really nice group of people back there," he said. "Burdett is typical of my constituents and typical of this part of Kansas. When I'm reading obituaries and see that someone from Burdett has died, I probably don't know them but I know they've lost one person who is an integral part of the life of that community."
Moran, 50, was a Kansas state senator from 1989 to 1996, representing the 37th District. He was elected to Congress in November 1996. Since then, Moran has missed only three weekends at home.
Of the four congressional districts in Kansas, Moran's 1st District is easily the biggest, sprawling over 57,575 square miles and 69 counties. Some counties border Colorado, some Oklahoma and some Nebraska. The eastern edge of the sprawling district is just 40 miles shy of the Missouri line. It also:
- Has more cattle than any other U.S. congressional district.
- Leads the nation in number of meatpacking plants.
- Has the most Hispanics in Kansas, 72,921, accounting for 11 percent of the district's population. Moran and three other congressmen hired a Spanish tutor for a year.
"I can deliver brief greetings in Spanish, and I wish I could say it was easy," he said.
- Ranks behind Florida and Arizona as having the oldest age per capita.
- With 75, has more hospitals than any congressional district in the country.
Vanessa Bamberger, human resources manager for the Hodgeman County Health Center in Jetmore, escorted Moran into a meeting room where he was introduced to some of the hospital's staff and board members.
"You all know Washington has a lot to do with hospital doors staying open because they have everything to do with Medicare reimbursement," Moran said. "You can scramble around trying to make things work, but if the reimbursement is insufficient and inefficient it's hard to make that scramble work for you."
Hospital board member Mark Hendrickson spoke up.
"Sixty-five percent of our patients are under Medicare, and right now we're two and a half months behind in paying our bills," he said. "It's affecting our credit rating ... that's how serious it is."
The hospital has 16 acute care beds and 30 in long-term care.
Nurses like Nancy Ferguson were finding that paperwork was taking the joy out of nursing.
"I do a large share of the paperwork, and I'm also the scrub nurse for surgery," Ferguson said.
After saying hello to some of the older patients in long-term care, Moran sat still for a brief interview with Dodge City television reporter Audrey Martin of KBSD-TV.
Later on the swing through the western end of his district, Moran met with hospital staff and administrators in Johnson City, Syracuse and Tribune.
At most smaller hospitals, professional staffing is difficult because of the lack of labor resources in the small communities they serve. Nurses and doctors brought in on a temporary basis usually are paid more than regular staff.
Hamilton County Hospital head nurse Maxine Hines said, "Three temporary nurses in our acute care unit are making more than the combined salaries of the unit's other eight employees."
Phyllis Horning, the hospital's business office manager, told Moran that a state law exempting agricultural-based businesses from carrying worker's compensation insurance was presenting a real problem for the hospital's cash flow.
"We have several large dairies in the area that sometimes have as many as 30 employees," she said. "When they are injured on the job, we certainly do our best to take care of them but many don't have health insurance, and without workman's compensation insurance we're left without payment."
Moran said it would be a great help if some of the "Washington people running our health care systems" would come out to Kansas and look at rural health centers.
"We can get them to come to Kansas City or Wichita because of the airports, but what they need to do is take a ride down Highway 27 through St. Francis, Goodland, Tribune , Syracuse, Johnson City and Elkhart," he said. "I think they'd be impressed with our 'no frills' health care."
Moran pointed his 2004 Chrysler toward Ellis. The odometer reads 46,000-plus miles. His last two automobiles, a Buick and a Chevy, cashed in at 218,000 and 190,000 miles respectively.
Unlike many members of Congress, Moran returns to his home every weekend.
Leaving D.C. on Thursday or Friday, he usually lands at Kansas City International Airport, sometimes in Wichita. Occasionally he'll overnight in Seneca, Belleville or another town in the northern tier of counties on his way to Hays.
"I think this is a better way to stay close to the people who sent me to Washington on their behalf," he said. "When I'm home I'll go to a civic meeting, go out and talk with farmers and businessmen ... just try to stay current with my district ... or I'll do what we're doing today and drive a few hundred miles."
During a four-week period each year, he conducts 69 town-hall meetings, one in each of his district's counties.
He always travels alone.
On Mondays he gets up at 5 a.m. and hits Interstate 70 to get back to KCI and catch a noontime flight back to Washington.
He has a 99.9 percent voting record.
"I know he gets tired of the travel," his wife, Robba Moran, said in her Hays living room, "but I think it's good that he comes home to keep his feet on the ground."
The Morans, married 20 years, have two daughters, Alex, 13, and Kelsey, 16.
"This lifestyle has not been a huge adjustment for the girls because this is the only way they've known him," Robba said. "He's a good dad when he's home ... e-mails them and talks to them online and on the phone."
Taking on Taiwan
In 1988, Lee Frickey built his first wheelchairs in his garage in Oberlin. They were built to support large, obese people, a niche neglected by other wheelchair manufacturers. Today, Frickey is the CEO of "Wheelchairs of Kansas" in Ellis, part of a $50 million operation that manufactures a line of wheelchairs, beds, mattresses and walkers for obese people.
Some of the electric-powered beds can hold a person weighing 1,000 pounds.
Today, he has many competitors.
"We hire three additional people to help with our three-times a year government inspections," Frickey said. "In Taiwan they can buy their inspection certificates on the street corner ... I've seen them ... it's not tough ... they cost $75."
Moran, whose only opponent in this fall's election is Libertarian Jack Murphy, was listening to his constituent talk about the cost of doing business in Kansas.
"It's not the cost of manufacturing," Frickey continued, "it's all of the bureaucracy we have to deal with to be compliant with good medical manufacturing in the United States. In Taiwan you don't have to be compliant with anything."
After a tour of the plant, the conversation continued in Frickey's office.
"Canada's federal import tax ... they hammer us hard," he said.
He talked about cutting his costs by outsourcing some of his work to Taiwan.
Last year liability insurance for "Wheelchairs of Kansas" increased by $400,000, to $1 million a year.
"All I'm looking for is a level playing field, that's all," Frickey said.
He shook hands with Moran at the plant's entrance saying, "I know you can't solve all of the problems, but I know you hear a bunch of them. I'm sure there are farm problems, city problems ... I'd hate to be in your shoes."
Back in the car heading for Hays and home, Moran repeated "level playing field."
"I hear that a lot," he said.