The voting records of U.S. Reps. Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran reveal that both Kansans are among the conservative members of Congress.
“It was pretty hard to tell them both apart,” said Michael Lynch, a Kansas University assistant professor of political science.
However, Kansas Republican voters will need to find a way to distinguish between the two longtime House members in the next year. Both men hope to replace Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, who is running for governor.
The August 2010 primary will mark a face-off between Tiahrt, who has represented the Wichita area in the House since 1995, and Moran, a seven-term congressman whose district includes most of western and central Kansas.
“This is kind of the expected showdown in Kansas politics,” said Chapman Rackaway, an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
Even though the American Conservative Union recognized both Tiahrt and Moran in 2008 for their voting records, political pundits say voters can find differences between the two men.
Moran, for instance, has voted against the Republican Party in recent years on some civil liberties issues such as warrantless wiretapping and prison detainee issues. He also voted on expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Tiahrt voted against expanding SCHIP.
“There’s only a couple of votes where there’s a clear difference between the two,” Lynch said.
The winner of the primary would be tough to beat in the general election. That’s because the Democrats’ best chance to compete left the state months ago when Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius became U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rackaway said.
Two Survey USA polls conducted earlier this year showed a very tight race. Moran tended to get more support from people who identified themselves as moderates, and Tiahrt won more backing from conservatives.
However, the polls also showed that many potential voters were undecided, especially those who live in northeastern Kansas, where neither Moran or Tiahrt is particularly well-known.
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University associate professor of political science, said the quickest way to get a leg up in the race could be to start winning over voters in Republican-rich Johnson County.
Tiahrt’s campaign has already started to run ads critical of President Barack Obama and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for their support of the stimulus bill. Beatty said it may be a better strategy for Moran and Tiahrt to try to establish themselves as the best anti-status quo candidate in Washington, rather than the most conservative.
“It’s really going to be fascinating to see who can do well in eastern Kansas,” Beatty said.
A long race
The main comparison between the two campaigns so far is fundraising.
Moran raised nearly $385,000 in the last quarter compared with Tiahrt’s $322,000. Because he has faced less-competitive challenges in past House races compared to Tiahrt, Moran has been able to stockpile cash — giving him an overall advantage of $3.1 million to $1.4 million in cash on hand.
However, the race is a year away, and both campaigns are happy with the money they are bringing in.
“The best campaign for office is to do the job that you have as well as you know how to do it,” Moran said.
Tiahrt is using a different strategy that includes airing ads early in the process.
“We have to have somebody who will go out and do what’s necessary,” Tiahrt said.
He has won support of social conservatives in the state, including Kansans for Life and former Rep. Jim Ryun, who took a jab at Moran.
“We have no use for another politician who fades into the background out of fear that he will offend someone and not win 80 percent of the vote in his next election against token opposition,” Ryun wrote in his letter supporting Tiahrt.
Both candidates have also trotted out legislation to seek the fiscally conservative mantle.
Moran has won support from Sens. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, and John Thune, of South Dakota. He has also sponsored a bill for the federal government to rid its holdings in private companies by next summer.
Tiahrt wants Congress to repeal some economic stimulus funding, a stance Democrats in the state criticized him for saying it would force deeper state budget cuts.
The focus on economic issues is revealing about the candidates’ strategies, Rackaway said.
“People want solutions-based leadership, and they don’t necessarily want partisan posturing,” he said. “Both of these guys respond to that.”
The challenge comes in balancing their current jobs in the House and trying to win support of both conservative and undecided voters for the August 2010 primary.
“We’re not going to know what is going to sway them until much closer to Election Day,” Beatty said.