OVERLAND PARK — For more than a decade, Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore befuddled Republicans by repeatedly winning control of the mostly Republican 3rd Congressional District in northeast Kansas.
Now, his wife, Stephene, is seeking to make history and keep a Moore in the seat during a difficult election year for Democrats. The obstetrics nurse is running against Republican lawyer Kevin Yoder, who, at 34, already has served eight sessions in the Kansas Legislature.
Many candidates have been appointed to their spouse's seat after a death or illness, but never before has a member of Congress simply retired and their spouse run for and won the seat, said political scientist Bob Beatty of Washburn University of Topeka.
"This is a really tough year for Democrats," Beatty said. "If Stephene Moore has a chance, just like Democrats across the nation, she's got to get Democrats and some unaffiliateds to vote... to make it close because she's probably not going to win over as many Republicans as her husband did just by the nature of this election."
Libertarian Jasmin Talbert is also on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The district includes urban Kansas City, Kan., suburban Johnson County and even part of the college town of Lawrence. Beatty said voters in the district — 38 percent of them Republican, 30.5 Democrat and 30 percent unaffiliated — don't like their candidates to be too conservative or too moderate.
When turnout is high or a candidate seems too extreme, Democrats can win. In 2008, the district even went for President Obama, Beatty said.
But times have changed. In the midst of a weak economic recovery, Obama's poll numbers have slumped and the midterm election is seen by many as a referendum on the president.
Yoder has repeatedly tried to link Moore to the policies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Obama. Stephene Moore has resisted the label.
"I am not going to be automatically assumed to be part of the bigger party," she said. "I'm me, and I've always said that for years the people in this district, the Third District, are open-minded, well-educated people who think for themselves.
"The people in this district look at the candidates and decide whose values align more with their own and that's who they'll support."
Beatty said the key for Yoder is staying away from what he termed "Phill Kline conservatism," in reference to the Republican former Kansas attorney general who received national attention for investigating abortion clinics.
To a large extent, that is what Yoder is doing, Beatty said. Yoder said he opposes abortion but that his focus has been on what he deemed "bread and butter issues" like the economy and unemployment.
"My belief is that the free enterprise system is a better way to solve our economic struggles than a government-enterprise system, which is what we have seen for the last couple of years coming out of Washington," Yoder said. "I believe we need to remove barriers to growth that are being felt by small-business owners."
Yoder has voiced his opposition to a cap-and-trade plan to address climate change and proposed federal legislation known by opponents as "card check," which would make it easier for workers to unionize.
He also said he supports repealing the entire health care reform bill and replacing it with a new bipartisan bill that is based on free-market reforms.
Moore has said she would have voted for the health care overhaul and said her background as a nurse makes her ideally suited to help work out the bugs as it is implemented.
To make her point that reform was needed, she often tells the story of a diabetic patient who had trouble controlling her insulin levels because she couldn't afford the testing strips to check her blood sugar frequently. Twice, the woman was flown to a hospital. Her baby was born healthy, but Moore said it would have been cheaper and less traumatic for the mother to provide the preventative care.
"People have not been really educated about what's in there," she said of the health care law. "It was used as a political football."