Topeka — President Barack Obama won't be on the ballot in November. But as far as the Kansas Republican Party is concerned, he might as well be.
Up and down the ticket, from races for Congress and governor, to state insurance commissioner and even the Kansas Legislature, Republican candidates are focusing on one message: They oppose Obama's agenda, and they want voters to know that Democrats support it.
That message was made clear Thursday when the Republican Governors Association released an independent ad against the Democratic candidate for governor, Paul Davis. Obama's face appears on the screen throughout the 30-second spot, often juxtaposed with pictures of Davis, and it mentions Obama more times than it mentions Davis.
“Don't delegate Kansas to an Obama liberal,” the announcer says at the end.
Democrats say they're not worried about the strategy, and they say it may even be risky for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback who, according to one poll released in February, had a worse job approval rating in Kansas than Obama had – 33 percent for Brownback compared to 34 percent for Obama, according to the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.
“This is a classic diversionary tactic,” said Fort Hays State University political science professor Chapman Rackaway, who studies Kansas politics. “Obama is not popular, but not drastically less popular than Brownback. He's got to find someone to elevate himself against.”
Chris Pumpelly, spokesman for the Davis campaign, said he believes it's a sign that Brownback is weak, and he pointed to the primary election results in which Brownback won renomination, but lost 37 percent of the GOP vote to a little-known candidate, Jennifer Winn, who raised and spent less than $14,000.
“This is just another example of the governor and his big-money allies trying to change the conversation to anything but Kansas. Because if it's about Kansas, he loses the election,” Pumpelly said.
Still, speaking with reporters as election returns were coming in Tuesday night, Brownback stuck to his anti-Obama message.
“I still think what is going to be the focus this fall is, I'm a Reagan-style Republican and my opponent Paul Davis is an Obama-style Democrat,” Brownback said.
And Republicans clearly believe their anti-Obama theme can work beyond just the governor's race.
At a post-primary GOP rally in Topeka Wednesday, Brownback introduced Ken Selzer, the Republican nominee for insurance commissioner.
“Ken, I look forward to working with you to get rid of Obamacare,” he told a cheering crowd. “This is a guy that's opposed to Obamacare in the insurance commissioner's office.”
And even in state legislative races, independent groups of all stripes have used Obama as a way to define one candidate or the other.
In the 99th District in Wichita, for example, the Kansas Chamber's political action committee mailed out fliers in support of conservative Rep. Dennis Hedke, saying he, “has fought Obamacare at the state level,” and “has opposed efforts by Obama's Kansas Democrats to take more of your money by raising taxes and increasing spending.”
Another mail piece from the Chamber PAC attacked Hedke's moderate Republican opponent, saying, “Randy Banwart will rubber stamp the Obama agenda.”
And even one left-leaning group, the Kansas Values Institute, mailed postcards in that same race, trying to tie Hedke to Obama-style politics.
“Hedke voted in the middle of the night to pass a bill he never read – the same way Congress passed Obamacare,” one postcard read.
“While our families were suffering under the burden of Obamacare and rising property taxes, Dennis Hedke was living high on the hog,” read another, referring to extra pay some legislators received for the extended session in 2013, and the amount various lobbyists reported spending for Hedke on meals and entertainment.
“Apparently left groups are even telling folks to run against Obama,” Rackaway said. “That is fascinating. And it makes sense. Obama is a decidedly unpopular figure in this state.”
He also said the strategy is not unprecedented. He noted that Democrats nationally used the same tactic in many races in 2006, tying Republican opponents to then-President George W. Bush, whose job approval ratings were even lower than Obama's in the final two years of his administration.