A little more than a month before Election Day, U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Johnston, a Democrat, sits quietly in a Lenexa coffeehouse sipping iced tea and talking politics.
No press aide or consultant is nearby. There are no campaign signs planted along the roadside or brightly colored bumper stickers in the parking lot. Johnston doesn't even have a news release to distribute, or plans for a rally to announce, or a TV commercial to defend.
It's a loudly different story across the country. Senate candidates are battling each other, raising and spending millions of dollars, accusing one another of cronyism, socialism — even debating witchcraft.
But not in Kansas.
Democrats haven't claimed a Senate seat in Kansas since 1932, a losing streak that political observers predict Johnston is certain not to break. Polling analyst Nate Silver gives her exactly a zero chance of beating opponent Rep. Jerry Moran, the Republican, in November.
"There's no doubt it's a challenge," Johnston acknowledged. "A Democrat, in Kansas, it isn't a cakewalk."
Johnston's low-key campaign is not a surprise. At the end of June, the Baker University administrator, who is currently on leave, had just $6,096 in campaign cash on hand. By contrast, Moran's campaign spent $1,181 for food at just one event last May.
"The reality is 2010 is a very tough fundraising year," Johnston said. "People are getting calls from many candidates ... I understand that."
But Johnston said fundraising has picked up enough for a targeted broadcast advertising effort in the campaign's closing weeks. Her campaign also may get some help from the party and organized labor, although it may be more moral and grassroots support than dollars and cents.
Moran's campaign also has been quiet, perhaps reflecting his depleted campaign account as well after a bitter primary battle with U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard.
In mid-July, Moran for Kansas had $795,000 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings, but much of that balance was likely spent before the August primary. Moran's campaign spent $4.5 million for the primary through mid-July. (Updated campaign finance reports aren't due until later this month.)
And because national donors don't see the Kansas race as remotely competitive, most of the Republican money Moran might have expected for TV ads has instead gone to other GOP candidates in tighter races.
"They're going to say 'listen, we have to make sure we're putting the right money in the right areas that will lead to a Republican takeover of the Senate,' " said GOP consultant Christian Morgan.
As a result, Moran has been content this fall to make a few public appearances, give and get endorsements, and raise some money. So far no debates have been scheduled in the race, although both candidates claim they're open to the idea.
"I try to do old-fashioned politics," Moran said. "Up and down main streets, in and out of courthouses, visits at civic clubs and chambers of commerce."
Moran's campaign appears strikingly similar to Johnston's: No entourage, no TV camera scrum, no evidence of a high-powered push to land the Senate seat once held by Bob Dole.
"It does seem to me there's a greater focus on the gubernatorial race than on the Senate race," he said.
Despite the similarities in their strategies, however, the two major party candidates' views on most issues are quite different, reflecting standard Democratic and Republican orthodoxy:
* He's for extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for everyone; she wants to return to Clinton-era tax rates for high-end earners. "We do have a revenue shortfall," Johnston said. "The tax cuts (for the top 2 percent) just aren't sustainable."
* She thinks the $800 billion stimulus was a good idea and has worked; he voted against it. "We have lots of people who are underemployed. Both spouses are still struggling to put food on the table," Moran said.
* He wants to repeal the health care reform package; she supports it. "I think there are things we could look at changing, but there are protections in there ... that Americans don't understand that need to be kept," Johnston said.
"I think health care should be repealed and replaced with ... things I think are a lot more common sense," Moran countered, including a look at rising medical costs and reforming malpractice awards.
The two candidates do get closer on the issues when discussing the pollution-control bill known as cap and trade.
"I worry a little bit about cap and trade in its current form," Johnston said. "It may be too burdensome for some of our energy industries in the state."
Moran is more aggressive in opposing the measure. "I'm a strong opponent of cap and trade, but I do believe we should pursue alternative fuels," he said.
Johnston, 39, has never run for public office. Moran, 56, was first elected to Congress in 1996, after spending time in the state legislature.
Michael Dann of Baldwin City is the Libertarian nominee in the race.
"How can you believe them when either party in power has increased the size of the federal government, its spending, the out-of-control deficit, and the unsustainable debt?" he asks on his website.
Joe Bellis of Overland Park is the Reform Party candidate.
"You can vote for a Democrat that will support the failed policies of your current congress and White House ... you can vote for a Republican, a 13 year congressional veteran that does not stand for limited government ... (or) you can vote for the conservative that is not controlled or owned by DC insiders," according to a statement on his website.
Despite the low-key campaign — and the odds against her — Johnston insisted she's prepared to take her message to Kansans in the closing weeks.
"I'm very much for fiscal responsibility," she said. "We've seen a lot of Republicans pay lip service to that, but we haven't seen a lot of action."
And win or lose, she added, she's learned much about the state and does not regret her decision to run.
Moran, on the other hand, has spent at least some time contemplating his next six years as a likely member of an exclusive club.
"We've nibbled around the edges of our problems for a very long time," he said. "It's a very humbling experience to recognize that if elected, my gosh, we've got these challenges. We want to make sure we do everything we can to meet them."