Topeka — Many Kansas Democrats who meet Lisa Johnston or hear her speak come away liking their U.S. Senate candidate, describing her as bright and articulate.
But they hesitate to handicap her race against the Republican nominee, veteran U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran. He’s expected to win easily — in a blowout, in fact — and Democrats appear to like Johnston too much as a candidate to want to dismiss her chances.
Johnston, a college administrator on leave, is making her first run for political office with few campaign funds in a GOP-leaning state. Republicans anticipate a good year because of voters’ frustration with President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress, and Moran has been vocal in criticizing their policies.
“It’s a pretty steep climb for Lisa Johnston,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Johnston has criticized a proposal Moran supports to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. She’s also noted his long political career and pitched herself as a fresh face.
But Moran has blunted potential criticism with hundreds of town hall meetings in seven U.S. House terms, creating an approachable image that helped him win a tough GOP primary. And there’s no sign of lingering angst among Republicans.
Moran’s campaign hinted at its confidence by waiting until last week to broadcast its first general election television ad, featuring supporters talking him up. He entered October with nearly $570,000 in campaign cash, compared with about $14,000 for Johnston.
“I think he’ll surpass the 70 percent mark pretty easily,” said Randy Duncan, a Salina businessman and the GOP’s 1st Congressional District chairman. “He has appeal all across the board, with all voters. He’ll draw votes from all demographics.”
Johnston and Moran are seeking the Senate seat held by Sam Brownback, a Republican who’s running for governor. A Libertarian, Michael Dann, of Baldwin City, and a Reform Party candidate, Joseph Bellis, of Overland Park, also are on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Moran, 56, from Hays, has represented the 1st District of western and central Kansas since 1997, winning his races by wide margins. Before that, he served eight years in the Kansas Senate, the last two as majority leader. He’s also an attorney.
Johnston, a 39-year-old Overland Park resident, is on leave from her job as an assistant dean for student academic services at Baker University in Baldwin City. She’s also taught there, and she began her career teaching psychology and working in clinics.
She even sees her lack of campaign funds as a virtue, saying in an interview that an ability to work effectively with few dollars is a skill Washington needs. She had raised about $27,000 for her campaign through September.
“People throughout the country have indicated a desire for fresh faces and fresh perspectives at all levels of government,” she said.
Moran’s campaign spending has approached $6 million, but the bulk was during his primary race with fellow U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, among the most bitter contests in Kansas in at least a generation. Moran emphasized throughout that he’s never moved his family to the Washington area and comes home on weekends.
“I think the American people are fed up with most elected officials,” he acknowledged. “I intentionally have worked hard at not having an incumbent’s mindset.”
In her campaign, Johnston has focused a television and web ad on the “fair tax” proposal advanced by some Republicans. In 2009, Moran co-sponsored a bill to impose a 23 percent national sales tax in 2011, and repeal income, employment, estate and gift taxes.
Johnston says the proposal is anything but fair for middle-class and lower-income families. She said they’re likely to pay far more in sales taxes than they’d save in income taxes. She said the new sales tax could put some items, such as cars, out of their reach.
“Those who are proponents of the ‘fair tax’ generally don’t give people a lot of information about the ramifications,” she said. “They say the name of it, and they say that it would be beneficial, and it ends there.”
Moran said such a tax plan would be structured to avoid hurting middle-class or lower-income families. He added that the federal tax code is too complicated, hinders economic growth and needs to be overhauled.
“What we’ve got to do is just start the debate,” he said. “I’d just be delighted if we had a national discussion.”
Meanwhile, Moran has stressed his opposition to Obama’s policies.
Like other Republicans, he’s called for repeal of the federal health care law approved this year. Johnston has said the health care law contains some good policy and has expressed disappointment with the GOP’s focus on opposing Obama.