Kansas vote marked by high stakes, low budgets

GOP campaign teams must strike quickly, effectively before March 10 primary

02/26/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:09 AM

It’s the 2012 presidential race. Multimillion-dollar budgets. High-priced consultants. Strategically situated campaign offices.

Then there’s the Newt Gingrich campaign in Kansas.

The Gingrich operation is headed by 34-year-old Mike Pirner, a laptop-wielding political veteran who sometimes works out of a Lenexa coffee shop.

His pay? Zero. His campaign budget? Zip. His enthusiasm? Boundless.

“Newt has big ideas and big solutions,” Pirner said. “There’s a path there for Newt in early March.”

Early March is show time for Pirner. The Kansas caucuses are on March 10, a Saturday, and as state GOP officials are quick to point out, they may well matter – and matter a lot – this year. The Kansas vote is the first following Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses on the same day.

No candidate is expected to sweep all those states, meaning the GOP race likely will continue.

With its 40 delegates on the line, Kansas offers more than Wyoming, Guam and the Virgin Islands, which also hold caucuses March 10.

“The Kansas caucus is going to be pretty important,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.

Pirner called Kansas “a momentum builder.”

The Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul campaigns have started organizing in Kansas.

Mitt Romney? He’s nowhere to be found, GOP officials said.

By comparison, the campaign of Santorum – who with his recent surge in the polls looms as Gingrich’s chief opponent in Kansas – is a high-dollar operation. Santorum’s has a state headquarters that opened Monday in Wichita and a paid state director, Greg Cromer, who works out of his Overland Park home.

“It depends on how you consider ‘bare bones,’ ” said Cromer, a 48-year-old real estate developer. “I prefer to look at it from the perspective that it’s a lean, mean machine.”

About 200 people came to the Kansas campaign kickoff Saturday at the Santorum headquarters at 155 N. Market, Cromer said. It hosts a phone bank with at least five lines, plus cellphones, and will be a site for moving campaign materials out.

“You don’t know what to expect,” he said of opening the office with just a few days’ notice. “We were very pleased.”

Paul’s campaign reportedly is opening an office in Lenexa, but no one with it could be reached for comment.

Gingrich’s office? That would be the kitchen table in Pirner’s apartment or the coffee shop.

“It’s the laptop. It’s the phone,” he said. “I could do this from anywhere.”

Pirner and his fellow volunteers must move quickly. They began organizing in early January in what amounts to an exhausting, eight-week sprint.

“You just go crazy and try to get done as much as you can,” he said. “I couldn’t do this all by myself. You need a bunch of volunteers or the campaign would be nonexistent.”

These days, job one for Pirner and Cromer is securing coordinators for each of the state’s 99 caucus sites, then pinpointing speakers who will stand up and speak on the candidates’ behalf at those caucus meetings. Pirner said he’s not picky, but he wants people who are comfortable speaking and can articulate Gingrich’s selling points.

One rule: The state party prohibits speaking ill of rival candidates.

Organizing is going well, Pirner said. “I’m really pleased with where I am.”

So is Cromer, who has teams around the state ready to pound campaign signs into the ground, including a 45-man fraternity in Manhattan. The Santorum organization claims 10 state coordinators, each of whom has dozens of volunteers assigned to them.

“It’s like tentacles,” Cromer said. “You don’t know how far it reaches.”

Santorum TV ads are running in Wichita, and plans for phone banks are in the works.

With Santorum winning Missouri’s nonbinding primary this month, Colorado’s caucuses the same day, and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses in January, Cromer is confident of a win in the state that sits smack in the middle – Kansas.

“It’s a matter of wrapping up in-between,” he said. “I’ve got a margin in my mind, a goal, but I don’t want to say what it is.”

Pirner, however, thinks Santorum has hit a ceiling. As they have so many other times this cycle, voters are beginning to re-examine the Pennsylvania senator, he said. That may give Gingrich yet another chance to rocket back to the front of the pack.

“I don’t think Republican voters have locked in on anybody,” Pirner said.

Pirner has coordinators in each of the state’s four congressional districts. He’s focused on organizing the state’s more populous counties, such as Johnson, Sedgwick, Douglas and Wyandotte. Left for later are finding caucus spokespersons for some of the state’s less populated rural counties, mainly in western Kansas.

The names of some volunteers came from Gingrich’s national campaign headquarters, others from the state party and the Facebook page Pirner set up for the Kansas operation.

He’s optimistic that Gingrich will visit before the caucuses. Mike Huckabee swung through before the 2008 caucuses in the Wichita area and Johnson County and wound up winning the state.

Cromer isn’t sure if Santorum is heading to Kansas. “They keep that information really tight to the vest,” he said of national Santorum headquarters. “I understand why.”

One thing Pirner isn’t worried about is a last-minute push by the well-financed Romney, who again raised the most money of any of the Republican candidates in January with $6.4 million. Gingrich was second with $5.6 million, but expenses left his campaign war chest almost empty.

“They could come in at the last minute, but this takes time,” Pirner said of Romney’s backers.

After March 10, Pirner will be able to relax again.

“I’ll be somewhat relieved that my part’s done,” he said. “Then I turn into a spectator.”

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