In one week, Kansas Republicans will choose the state's next senator. As for the November election, it's a formality. We haven't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since the Depression days of 1932.
The race between Reps. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, and Jerry Moran, R-Hays, has been contentious, as both have striven to assume the mantle of true conservatism. I have no desire to revisit that slugfest. I want to ponder the question of what kind of senator Moran or Tiahrt would make.
Since 1978, Kansas has elected just four senators — Bob Dole, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback. In short, we're likely making a long-term choice here, and either candidate will vote in a reliably conservative, Republican way. But voting scarcely defines one's impact as a senator.
Just looking at these four senators demonstrates the differences among individual legislators. Dole moved from representing parochial western Kansas concerns to becoming a national figure, party leader and political heavyweight. Kassebaum was highly influential with her thoughtful independence; she could often sway several senators with her vote on a given issue.
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Roberts took his wicked sense of humor and long-term House experience into the Senate and began to carve out an important role, before taking the Intelligence Committee chairmanship and becoming less funny and more partisan.
Brownback created a Senate career that combined social conservatism, ambition and the capacity to cross the aisle on issues of personal concern, such as African humanitarian policies. He has been partisan but not always predictable.
Far more in the Senate than the team-oriented House, an individual legislator can make a big difference in how he or she chooses to approach the job.
What might we expect of a Sen. Moran or Sen. Tiahrt?
At first blush, this might seem an easy pair of calls. Moran, with his good-old boy demeanor, would seem an ideal schmoozer who could work with all kinds of senators and make deals across the aisle. Tiahrt, on the other hand, comes across as a hard-core conservative and a fierce party loyalist who might have trouble working as an individual entrepreneur.
But looking at their behavior as House members, these stereotypes quickly break down. To be sure, Tiahrt has long stood at the center of GOP politics in the House, in that he won an Appropriations Committee seat as a freshman in 1995. But appropriators are by definition positioned to be deal makers, and Tiahrt has played that role effectively for his Wichita constituents, as well as for other interests that he represents.
In 2007, he made a point of doing a bit of research and approaching the incoming veteran, liberal Appropriations chairman, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., with a symbolic gift of a bottle of whiskey. Tiahrt reports that he's done well ever since in his committee-based bargaining.
Moran has proved capable of protecting the agricultural interests of the "Big First," and he famously visits all 69 counties in his district each year. But he's probably best known for making the occasional tough vote in which he took on the party establishment — such as voting against Medicare drug benefits in 2003.
In the end, both congressmen have been effective at home and in Washington, D.C., in their own ways, and have clearly satisfied their constituents. But I'd argue that Tiahrt likely will be the insider senator and Moran more the outsider. Both styles can work, but they are distinct and reflect real — not constructed — differences.