U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kansas, says his Republican opponent, Kris Kobach, is much too conservative for the 3rd Congressional District.
"He's far, far to the right," Moore said.
But Kobach says Moore, a three-term incumbent, is out of touch with the district, which includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties and the eastern two-thirds of Douglas County.
"He's very vulnerable," Kobach said. "He voted against the president's tax cuts in 2003 and he voted against the gay-marriage amendment in 2004 -- those were both very popular bills in the district."
Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is betting the district has become conservative enough for him to unseat Moore, who narrowly defeated conservatives Vince Snowbarger in 1998 and Phill Kline in 2000. Kline was elected Kansas attorney general in 2002.
For his part, Moore said it was true he voted against the tax cut and gay marriage amendment, but adds that Kobach is confusing popularity with responsible voting.
Moore, 58, said he did not support the 2003 tax cut because the federal government was buried in debt.
"We're spending $422 billion more than we take in. We have a $7.4 trillion debt that has to be paid back," he said. "I voted against the president's bill because the money wasn't there to give back."
And Moore said he voted against the same-sex marriage amendment because federal and state laws already define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"Throughout this nation's history, the Constitution has been amended 27 times -- 10 of those times were all at once: the Bill of Rights," he said. "(Same-sex marriage) is not a concern or a problem that warrants amending the Constitution."
Kobach disagreed. Same-sex marriages, he said, are an "imminent threat" to the "traditional definition of marriage."
The tax cuts, he said, were, at best, modest and were needed to give the economy a much-needed boost.
Counting on Johnson County
It's a conservative strategy whose time has come, Kobach said, because of shifting demographics in the district.
"In Johnson County alone, 24,000 people have moved into the district in the last two years," Kobach said. "And I'm told that most of those who've registered (to vote) are Republicans by a wide margin."
That remains to be seen. Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh's office last week said it would release the district's latest registration numbers Thursday.
Johnson County accounts for almost three-fourths of the district's voters. Wyandotte and Douglas county voters make up the remaining 19 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
In the past three elections, Moore trailed his opponents in Johnson County but picked up enough votes in Douglas and Wyandotte counties to win.
Still, the outcomes have been driven by Moore's taking advantage of the split between moderate and conservative Republicans.
"The conservatives have a good track record when it comes to turning out to vote in the primary. But in the general election, it's different," Moore said. "I have been able to put together a coalition of moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats, and I've been able to win."
'Two to one'
Last week, Johnson County's election office posted figures showing at least 340,390 registered voters; 6,680 more than it had in November 2002, when Moore defeated moderate Republican Adam Taff in the general election. That time, Moore received 50 percent of the vote to Taff's 47 percent.
The office said it expected the number of registered voters to reach 350,000 by Nov. 2. So far, the increase includes 5,390 Republicans, 2,748 Democrats and 672 independents.
"That's about two to one Republicans to Democrats. That's what it's always been," said Larry Winn III, an Overland Park attorney and longtime GOP activist.
Winn, who participated in a "Republicans for Moore" rally last week in Overland Park, said he doubted Kobach would fare better than Snowbarger and Kline did in Johnson County.
"I'm one of those guys who thinks (Johnson County) is still pretty much a middle of the road kind of place," said Winn, son of former Congressman Larry Winn Jr.
Others aren't so sure. "The fact that the conservatives just won back the (Republican) party, both in Johnson County and in the state, is an indication of how the moderates have failed," said John Altevogt, an outspoken conservative and former chairman of the Wyandotte County Republican Party.
Douglas County's election office last week announced it had 10,000 more registered voters than in 2002. It's not yet known how many of these new voters are in the 3rd District and how many are in the 2nd District.
In Wyandotte County, election commissioner Pat Rahija said her office had registered 10,461 voters since Jan. 1.
"That's double what we've ever done in the past, increase-wise," Rahija said. More than 80 percent are Democrats or independents.
"Wyandotte County still tends to be very Democratic," she said.
Majority in the middle
Moore and Kobach are opposed by Reform Party candidate Richard Wells, a 76-year-old retired aerospace engineer from Olathe, and by Joe Bellis, a process analyst from Overland Park. Bellis, 49, is a Libertarian.
Neither Bellis nor Wells responded to Journal-World requests for interviews.
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at Kansas University, is keeping a close watch on the 3rd District race.
"At some point, with more and more conservatives moving into south Johnson County, the district is likely to tip in their favor," Loomis said. "Whether that's this year, I don't know. But it's clear, I think, that Kris Kobach thinks it is."
Loomis said he was been struck by how little Kobach had reached out to the district's moderate Republicans.
"The conventional wisdom in American politics is that to build a majority, you move to the middle," Loomis said. "(Kobach) has not done that."
Instead, he said, Kobach, 38, has focused most of his energies on rallying conservatives who in the past haven't bothered to vote.
"He's really been stoking the fires," Loomis said.
It's not surprising, he said, that Kobach has used the usual wedge issues -- abortion, gun control, gay marriage, stem cell research -- to define his differences with Moore.
But it's "fascinating," Loomis said, that Kobach decided to use immigration and a call for securing the nation's borders with Canada and Mexico to set himself apart from Moore.
"Those are not issues that play to the middle," he said.
But Kobach, a former counsel on immigration to U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft from September 2001 to July 2003, says the war on terror is doomed as long as so little is being done to stop the flow of illegal immigrants.
"We have to get serious about defending our borders if we're going to have a realistic homeland security policy," he said
Kobach said he was for using the National Guard to patrol the borders.
Moore said Kobach's plan was ill-conceived and lacked the support of the Bush administration.
"He's trying to capitalize on terrorism, using hate and fear," Moore said. "I think the 3rd District deserves better than that."
In July, Kobach filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Washington, D.C.,-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, seeking to block a new state law allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Kansas universities.
Days later, it was revealed that FAIR was co-founded by John Tanton, a key figure in the nation's anti-immigration and English-only movements.
Taff, one of Kobach's two opponents in the GOP primary, criticized Kobach for associating with FAIR and other "radical, extremist" groups.
Moore echoed Taff's sentiments. "What these groups stand for, I find highly offensive," Moore said.
Kobach bristled at the allegations.
"Anybody who knows me will tell you there's not a racist bone in my body," he said. "I spent four months is South Africa once, building schools for black children, and I've filed many, many protection orders for battered women, many of whom were black. To imply that I am somehow racist is ridiculous and hurtful."