Topeka Kansas Republicans will mark their state's 150th birthday by settling a spirited race for a coveted party leadership job in which a departing congressman faces strong criticism from a rival for stepping into national GOP politics.
U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who's represented the 4th District of south-central Kansas for 16 years, is seeking one of the state's three seats on the Republican National Committee. Kris Van Meteren, a longtime Republican activist from Ozawkie, is challenging him, and Randy Duncan, of Salina, the state party's 1st Congressional District chairman, also is interested in the job. Incumbent RNC member Mike Pompeo is stepping down early because he won Tiahrt's seat in Congress after Tiahrt made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.
The Senate race echoes in the internal party contest because of Van Meteren's affiliation with a firm that produced mailings for Jerry Moran, the 1st District congressman who defeated Tiahrt in this year's bitter GOP primary contest for the Senate. Also, Van Meteren is criticizing Tiahrt over his public endorsement of a candidate for the party's national chairmanship, while Tiahrt accuses Van Meteren of engaging in "gutter politics."
The Republican State Committee plans to pick the new national committee member Jan. 29, the anniversary of the state's admission to the union in 1861. The meeting will be part of the Kansas GOP's annual convention in Topeka, its biggest gathering of the year, one drawing hundreds of activists.
So far, key Republicans aren't expressing concern about the possibility of a contentious internal contest so soon after the GOP swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot since 1964.
"I think it shows you've got a vibrant party," said Gov.-elect Sam Brownback, who takes office Jan. 10.
The winner of the race for the RNC seat will serve the rest of Pompeo's term, which ends after the party's next national convention in 2012. Each state elects one man and one woman to the national committee, and its chairman is a voting member as well. Kansas' other RNC representatives are Helen Van Etten, of Topeka, and state Chairwoman Amanda Adkins.
Van Etten was president of the Kansas Republican Assembly, formed by anti-tax, anti-abortion Christian evangelical activists within the GOP, when she unseated a less conservative RNC member, former state Sen. Alicia Salisbury, of Topeka, in 2008.
Pompeo replaced former state Rep. Steve Cloud, of Lenexa, another moderate who stepped down in 2008, six months after conservatives unhappy with Cloud won passage of a state committee resolution criticizing him by name.
Tiahrt's record in Congress has been in line with the current anti-abortion, low-tax and small-government bent of most state committee members. In his Senate primary, he received the National Right to Life Committee's endorsement even though Moran had never broken with the group on an abortion issue, because abortion foes considered Tiahrt a visible leader for their cause.
Van Meteren acknowledges Tiahrt's congressional record but questions his endorsement of Maria Cino for the party's national chairmanship.
She's a former high-ranking official in the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Commerce under President George W. Bush and the chief executive officer for the 2008 GOP National Convention. She's one of at least five challengers to incumbent Chairman Michael Steele, and the RNC plans to decide whether Steele remains chairman during a meeting Jan. 13-16.
Van Meteren's questions about Cino stems from Cino's past involvement with WISH List, a group working to elect abortion rights Republicans. Cino describes herself as an anti-abortion Catholic, but she contributed $1,500 to WISH List from 1997 through 2001, according to Federal Election Commission records.
"I'm not sure why Todd decided to jump into it, other than Todd owes her a favor from help he's received from her in the past," Van Meteren said, adding that he's not endorsing a candidate for national chairman.
Tiahrt said he's endorsed Cino because of the help she provided him and other GOP candidates as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 1990s, when the GOP recaptured a U.S. House majority in 1994. He also said there's no doubt about Cino's anti-abortion views.
He said Van Meteren's comments are "typical of what I saw in the primary," a reference to mailings from Moran's campaign attacking Tiahrt. Van Meteren's firm, the Singularis Group, based in Johnson County, produced materials for Moran campaign.
"I'm a little bit surprised that we're seeing the worst form of Republican politics in this race," Tiahrt said. "What I'm faced with is gutter politics."
Duncan, who's served as the GOP's 1st District chairman for six years and as Saline County chairman for 15 years before that, said he considers both men friends. He also isn't endorsing a candidate for national chairman, though he notes the gains Republicans made in elections this year, including winning back a House majority after Democrats captured it in 2006.
"When you're the leader of the party, your job is to elect Republicans, and certainly Michael Steele did his job," Duncan said. "I think he's been successful at his job."