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Pompeo-Tiahrt race could be spirited, tough one that splits GOP, analysts say

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, June 2, 2014, at 7:58 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 24, 2014, at 9:46 a.m.

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If the recent chatter on social media is any indication, the Republican primary race between Mike Pompeo and Todd Tiahrt for the 4th Congressional District seat should be heated.

“Both candidates have assured us they will not make it a dirty, emotional campaign,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.

The next two months will tell for incumbent Pompeo and former congressman Tiahrt.

Races for the Aug. 5 primary were set at all levels with Monday’s filing deadline.

In Sedgwick County, there are two key races for the County Commission.

District 4 incumbent Richard Ranzau faces a primary challenge from state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican. Former state Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, a Democrat, also has filed for the seat.

State Rep. Jim Howell and Derby Mayor Dion Avello will meet in the GOP primary for the District 5 seat vacated by Jim Skelton. Richard Young, a former Rose Hill mayor, is seeking the seat as a Democrat.

In state races, Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to have little opposition from Jennifer Winn in the Republican primary before he squares off against House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Democrat, and Libertarian Party candidate Keen Umbehr, an attorney, in the Nov. 4 general election.

Longtime U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts has GOP primary opposition from political newcomer Milton Wolf, in addition to lesser-known candidates Alvin Zahnter of Russell and D.J. Smith of Osawatomie.

Chapman Rackaway has been taking the temperature of the Pompeo-Tiahrt race by checking social media comments since Tiahrt announced his candidacy last week.

“Pompeo supporters are already calling Tiahrt names,” the political science professor at Fort Hays State University said, “and Tiahrt supporters are saying Pompeo is best friend of the Obamas.”

Barker has seen similar comments on Twitter and Facebook.

“You can’t stop what a supporter says,” he said. “That’s just a sprinkling of the emotional individuals, but we get a sense there’s a lot of energy from both men.”

And that’s why Barker has visited with Pompeo and Tiahrt, who is seeking the congressional seat he held for 16 years, about how they plan to handle the race.

A heated campaign could cause a rift among the state’s Republicans.

“That is a legitimate concern,” Barker said, “because both of these men have a large number of supporters. Both are well known.

“When you have a tough primary, you do have to turn around and come together. Everyone is supposed to work together again in the general.”

Before Tiahrt entered the race, Pompeo had been favored to easily win a third term in the 4th District, where a significant majority of registered voters are Republicans.

Perry Schuckman, a former director of Wichita’s Nonprofit Chamber of Commerce, was the only Democrat to file for the seat.

The GOP primary for the district has added spice to the next two months.

It’s a race that seems to be splitting hairs between conservative stances, setting a basis for some heated arguments, observers said.

Tiahrt was a member of the Tea Party Caucus while in Congress. Pompeo is not a member of that caucus, but he has been endorsed by Freedom Works, a tea party group.

Although Tiahrt’s return to politics was a topic of speculation for months, questions remain about why now.

“What’s really interesting is the stuff we won’t know – the back story on why Tiahrt is entering the race,” Rackaway said. “For me, it has to be either something personal happened between Pompeo and Tiahrt – personal enmity can drive something like this – or he’s yearning to return to the campaign environment and public service.”

In making his announcement, Tiahrt talked about a “call in his heart for public service.”

Tiahrt left the House to run for the Senate in 2010. He lost to Jerry Moran in the primary, and Pompeo was elected to the 4th District seat.

Tiahrt endorsed Pompeo in 2010 and in 2012, a fact Pompeo has already jumped on for his campaign.

“That is a real challenge for Tiahrt to overcome,” Rackaway said.

Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, disagreed.

“It’s not hard to swat away,” he said, “because the Tiahrt response is, ‘Yeah, I endorsed him, and four years later, I’m disappointed.’ That’s usually what you say.

“In fact, you could almost turn it into a positive. You could almost see an ad that says, ‘I endorsed him four years ago, it’s too bad.’ It leads into a whole theme.”

Meanwhile, Republican supporters will be splitting their donations between the two camps. Some of the social media criticism has said that hurts the GOP overall.

Barker looks at it differently.

“When a race is close,” he said, “donors are more likely to give to that one. Maybe they wouldn’t have given at all if not for this race.

“Hopefully, after the primary, they’ll turn around and help the team on the general.”

Pompeo comes into the race with $2.1 million cash in his campaign fund as of March 31, the latest filing with the Federal Election Commission shows. Tiahrt is just getting started raising money.

Beatty said that Tiahrt, who is one of the state’s three representatives on the Republican National Committee, isn’t “just coming out of left field.”

“He’s still in touch with a section of the Republican Party,” he said. “What we don’t know is how big a section. He still has to raise the money to get his theme across.”

Rackaway said Tiahrt has a “big hill to climb” but not necessarily when it comes to raising money.

Tiahrt, who spent more than $3 million in his Senate bid, still has a donor base, Rackaway said. “He’ll find that money very quickly. He could have $1 million in a week or two.

“The long knives will come out shortly.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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