U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran on Tuesday narrowly defeated Rep. Todd Tiahrt in the contentious Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate.
Moran gave his victory speech just before midnight, telling the crowd of more than 300 in Johnson County, “What we need to do in America is make sure the next generation of America has a bright future,” he said.
“Let’s take this enthusiasm and take it to November and restore America.”
Moran, who outspent Tiahrt 2-1 in a $7 million race, managed to claim the victory despite losing the state’s two most populous counties. Tiahrt won vote-rich Johnson County, with 49-percent of the votes to Moran’s 45-percent.
Tiahrt, of Goddard, also won big in his home county of Sedgwick, grabbing 69-percent of the vote to Moran’s 26-percent.
But Moran was able to make up the difference with strong support from rural Kansas, including his vast 1st District, which covers all of western Kansas.
Tiahrt conceded after midnight on Wednesday, beginning with a slight quaver in his first words to his supporters: “I love you all.”
A few hundred of his supporters cheered him again and again. Tiahrt did not say what his plans might be now. But he told his supporters their work, including in walking precincts and knocking on doors in recent days in 100-plus-degree heat was not done in vain.
You’ve made this a stronger country,” he said. “I’m sorry we didn’t get it to the finish line quite as good as we had hoped.”
The primary was one of the most negative in memory. The Senate race and the 4th District slugfest between Mike Pompeo and Wink Hartman brought a record number of voters for a primary in Sedgwick County.
Statewide, voters went with seasoned politicians who had name recognition. Republican voters selected Kansas Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt of Independence as their candidate for attorney general against incumbent Democrat Steve Six. Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger also prevailed in her GOP primary and faces no opponent this fall. Kris Kobach, co-author of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, won the right to represent the GOP in the race for secretary of state. He will face appointed incumbent Chris Biggs.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, the Republican nominee for governor, said he didn’t think the negative campaigning would hurt the Republican Party.
“It wasn’t a philosophical difference,” he said of Tiahrt and Moran. “These guys are both pretty similar. It was more of a style issue.”
Late Tuesday, Moran and Tiahrt awaited the results at separate ends of the state.
Moran was at the GOP headquarters in Johnson County, where a crowd of about 300 gathered.
Tiahrt remained in his home 4th District, watching the results with supporters at the Hilton Wichita Airport. Tiahrt stayed cheerful, and continued as he had done all night, making the party mostly about thanking people he said had worked long hours to help him.
Trying to sort out how he might fare against Moran statewide was impossible in advance, he said.
“With 109 degree heat in Kansas today that might affect the outcome,” Tiahrt said, “It might suppress some of the vote in the 1st District.”
Familiarity with candidates and negativity of the campaigns played a role in voters’ decisions.
After voting at Westwood Presbyterian Church, 8007 W. Maple, Forest Cornwell said he voted for Tiahrt.
“They were so much alike,” Cornwell said. “I just went with the one I knew more about.”
After voting at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 1101 N. River Road, Michael Brady said he voted for Moran over Tiahrt.
“I don’t think there was a whole lot of difference in their politics,” he said, “but I thought Tiahrt’s campaign was more negative. All that negativity wears you out.”
Tom Little, a Mound City accountant, was the third GOP candidate.
By contrast, the Democratic campaign was mild. During a debate last month that included four of the party’s five candidates, they stuck largely to issues.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Lisa Johnston, an assistant dean at Baker University in Baldwin. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932.
The Senate seat is open because Brownback is running for governor.
The Moran-Tiahrt race will probably be remembered most for its negative campaigning. The two spent nearly $7-million combined bashing each other.
As the two veteran congressmen lashed out in a battle to show who was the most conservative, Moran and Tiahrt didn’t look that much different politically. They both have followed traditional Republican lines such as lower taxes and less government.
Moran and Tiahrt have both received rock star ratings from conservative groups.
Moran has an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association; Tiahrt’s score is “A+.” Neither has ever broken with the National Right to Life Committee on abortion votes while in Congress. Moran’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is almost 92-percent; Tiahrt’s is 95-percent.
Each campaign accused the other of dirty tactics, trading allegations of sanctioning unethical “push” polling. Tiahrt accused Moran’s camp of threatening political retribution. A former manager who says he was pushed out of the Moran campaign recently endorsed Tiahrt publicly; Moran described him as disgruntled.
Moran said he sat down with Tiahrt before the campaign began in an attempt to avoid negativity.
“I suggested that we remain friendly . . . to do everything we can to keep it on friendly terms,” Moran said during an interview last month.
In a separate interview, Tiahrt said, “He never had that conversation with me. Maybe he dreamt it one night. He apparently forgot what he said in his dream because he has certainly run a negative campaign.”
Moran said he only responded to attacks from Tiahrt. “It’s the campaign we have been forced to run,” Moran said.
Tiahrt said his claims against Moran are “historical facts, his voting record.”
Tiahrt tried to portray Moran as being more moderate than conservative and too easygoing to fight the tough battles in Washington. Moran responded that he wouldn’t have been re-elected six times in his Republican-dominated 1st District “if I was the kind of things he said I was.”
Issues such as the economy, taxes, energy and the war in Afghanistan were lost in the GOP campaign.
Besides a long list of backing from farm organizations, Moran had the support of conservative senators such as Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Tiahrt countered with endorsements from some high-profile conservative individuals and organizations, such as Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and Tea Party Express.
Moran has represented the sprawling 1st District of western and central Kansas since 1997.
The 1st District also gave Moran an inherent numbers advantage. Known as the Big 1st, it has the most registered Republican voters of any of the state’s four congressional districts — 35,000 more than in Tiahrt’s 4th District.
This was the first time Moran had faced a serious election challenge. In general elections, Moran has won with an average of 84-percent of the votes.
Through mid-July, they had combined to spend $6.7 million — $4.5 million by Moran and $2.2 million by Tiahrt.