TOPEKA — The Democrats' only announced candidate in the state's 2nd Congressional District dropped out of the race Thursday, another major disappointment for a state party already facing a difficult election year.
State Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka said a campaign would have diverted too much of her attention from pressing legislative duties. She's the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee, and the state continues to face financial problems.
"It boils down to my inability to fulfill my duties in the Senate and run a congressional race," she said.
Kelly started her congressional campaign in the eastern Kansas district in October. Democratic leaders believed she had a strong chance of unseating U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a freshman Republican.
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But Republicans expected to keep the 2nd District in a year in which the GOP anticipates gaining congressional seats nationally because of the economy and discontent with President Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Also, Republicans believed Jenkins' chances for re-election were boosted by a strong GOP ticket in Kansas. U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback is running for governor and U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are seeking the GOP nod for his Senate seat.
The Democrats' Senate candidate is Charles Schollenberger, a former journalist from Prairie Village. Democratic leaders are still seeking a strong challenger to Brownback in the governor's race .
Kelly's announcement came two weeks after Democrats' presumed nominee for governor, former pharmaceutical company executive Tom Wiggans, abandoned his campaign.
"This really shows the sorry state of affairs for the Kansas Democratic Party," said Christian Morgan, a former Kansas GOP executive director and consultant for numerous Republican candidates.
State Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City also had been considered a potential 2nd District candidate for Democrats but deferred to Kelly.
"I don't have any plans to jump back into that," he said Thursday.
Kelly, 59, is serving her second Senate term. She's also been mentioned as a potential candidate for lieutenant governor.
"The Democrats have been talking her up for the past year as one of their stars," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University of Topeka.
The 2nd District has had three representatives in the past four years. Republican Jim Ryun held the seat for a decade before losing to Democrat Nancy Boyda in 2006. Jenkins unseated Boyda in 2008.
Kelly said she knew beating an incumbent would be difficult. Beatty and others believe the national political climate moving against Democrats makes that task tougher.
"It doesn't look very good for the Democrats right now," said Duke University political scientist David Rohde. "The prospects in a state like Kansas are very low."
Some Democrats are not as pessimistic.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic media consultant in Washington, thinks the party's stock will rise once a congressional debate over health care is over and that the political climate will change quickly if the economy improves.
"The Big Kahuna here, of course, is what happens to the economy," Fenn said. "If I were a Republican, I wouldn't be popping the champagne corks just yet."
But Kelly said such considerations weren't behind her decision. Over time, she said, she learned she couldn't run for Congress without neglecting her legislative duties.