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Wichita could sway Senate race

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, August 1, 2010, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, at 2:19 a.m.

Is the U.S. Senate race really all about Johnson County? Doesn't Wichita fit in there somewhere?

The answers are yes and yes.

There's no doubt that the more than 166,000 registered GOP voters in Johnson County — nearly a quarter of the state's total and the most in any county — carry plenty of clout in Tuesday's election.

But that doesn't entirely discount the influence of the Wichita area in deciding the race between the state's two longest-tenured congressmen, Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt.

To overcome the inherent numbers advantage Moran has with his vast 1st District, Tiahrt must win big in his home 4th District, political analysts say.

Moran's 1st District, which includes all of western Kansas, has more than 203,000 registered Republican voters — the most of the state's four congressional districts and 35,000 more than in Tiahrt's 4th District in south-central Kansas.

Plus, over the years, Moran has drawn much stronger support in the 1st than Tiahrt has in the 4th. In general elections, Moran has won with an average of 84 percent of the vote during his seven terms in Congress, while Tiahrt has averaged 58 percent of the vote during his eight terms.

"Moran will have a very large margin apparently in the 1st District," said Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas. "Question is, can Tiahrt match that at all in the 4th?"

Ken Ciboski, a Wichita State University political science professor, agreed.

"If Tiahrt is going to win this thing," he said, "he's going to have to really clean up in the 4th District."

Tiahrt said he expects both candidates to carry their home districts.

"But percentagewise," he predicted, "I'll carry the 4th stronger than he will in the 1st."

Turnout is critical for Tiahrt, said Russell Fox, a Friends University political science professor.

"Wichita is his stomping grounds," Fox said. "If the people that normally support him are not showing up to cast ballots, then his foundation is cut out underneath him. Turnout in Wichita is very important to him."

Battles in Johnson, Sedgwick counties

There's no historical benchmark to follow in trying to project a primary turnout for either Moran or Tiahrt.

Primaries have largely been non-factors for both candidates in their congressional races, with neither facing a challenger in the last six primaries.

There are reasons to think the 1st and 4th districts should see strong voter turnout. In addition to the high stakes for the GOP Senate primary, both districts have hotly contested congressional races.

"Both districts have equal amount of incentive to get out and vote," said Joe Aistrup, political science professor at Kansas State University. "It all comes down to turnout, whether the levels in the 1st and 4th are comparable."

From there, he said, "It's a matter of whether or not the percentage of votes for Moran and Tiahrt can counter-balance each other. And then the rest of the state becomes the arbiter."

The Republican primary is expected to determine the state's next senator. Five Democrats seek their party's nomination, but none is as well known or as well financed as Moran and Tiahrt. Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

"No one suggests that a Democrat has a chance in November," Loomis said.

So Moran and Tiahrt are going hard after this election. By mid-July, their campaigns had combined to spend more than $6.7 million.

They have gone into the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts, looking for support from new blocs of voters.

Both candidates acknowledged they have paid particularly strong attention to Johnson County, not only because of the large number of GOP voters but also because they were relatively unknown in the area.

Neither campaign would say how much it has spent on advertising in Johnson County and in the Wichita area, but Moran and Tiahrt say they have not ignored Wichita.

Karl Rove was at Tiahrt campaign rallies in both Wichita and Johnson County. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative political activist and author, went to Topeka and Lenexa to support Tiahrt.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, joined Moran at a town hall meeting in Olathe. Another conservative senator, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., came to a Wichita to show his support for Moran.

Tiahrt pointed to his campaign having nearly 1,200 yard signs in Johnson County as "material evidence of good grassroots support up there."

He added, "I've spent quite a few days in Johnson County, but I've spent more in Sedgwick County."

Moran said, "The Johnson County suburbs are clearly an important component, so I've spent a lot of time in the 3rd District. But I take my efforts in the Wichita area very seriously. It's a place I want to vie for votes."

The 4th District, of course, isn't all about Wichita. Plenty of rural towns dot the 11-county district.

Appealing to the rural voter is one of Moran's strengths and why he has dominated his 69-county district, said Ciboski, the WSU political scientist.

Appeals to GOP base

The state also has 489,000 unaffiliated voters, including 115,000 in the 4th District and 98,000 in the 1st District.

Grabbing those voters in a Republican primary is difficult because the party has a closed primary. The GOP requires voters to register with it, whether in advance or by signing up at polling places on Election Day.

Persuading unaffiliated voters in the 4th District would be one way Tiahrt could overcome Moran's numbers advantage in the 1st, Friends' Fox said.

"I don't know if Tiahrt is focusing a lot of attention on that," Fox said, "but it has to be on his mind.

"I don't think you'll ever see this in his advertising, but probably in the grassroots of his campaign, he'll have people talking about, 'Hey, you're a good conservative person, a good Christian.... You've always supported Tiahrt, but you've never called yourself a Republican. Well, we need you to call yourself a Republican.' "

KU's Loomis said that would be a tough sales pitch for either candidate.

"You have to go in there and declare you're a Republican on the day of the primary when it's probably going to be 95 degrees," Loomis said. "Tiahrt particularly has to count on the Republican base.

"Someone who is a real moderate might try to convince a bunch of people. But Tiahrt isn't going after the middle; he's ensconced on the right. Moran might get some. But in terms of trying to find votes there, that's a non-starter."

What will jump-start either campaign is strong support in the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts, in northeast Kansas.

"That's where the battleground is really," Tiahrt said.

But only if Tiahrt gets very strong support in the 4th District and does well between the 1st and 4th, Loomis said.

"Anytime your home district is more than a quarter of the electorate," he said, "you've got to do well."

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