TOPEKA — Kansas Republicans picked former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Goddard to fill a key party leadership job Saturday after a spirited contest that suggested hard feelings still lingered from Tiahrt's loss in November's bruising Senate primary.
The GOP State Committee elected Tiahrt to a vacant seat on the Republican National Committee. Tiahrt represented the 4th Congressional District of south-central Kansas for 16 years, but chose not to seek re-election to run for the Senate.
"I think I can have some influence at the national party level, and I'm probably the only former member of Congress who's going to be there, so I have some unwritten credibility, just from my service," Tiahrt said after the vote.
Tiahrt replaces Mike Pompeo of Wichita, who stepped down after winning Tiahrt's congressional seat.
Many Republicans thought Tiahrt's national contacts and visibility in conservative causes, such as his vocal opposition to abortion, made him a natural to represent Kansas on the RNC. Yet he drew two opponents: GOP activist Kris Van Meteren of Ozawkie and Randy Duncan, of Salina, the party's chairman in the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas.
Van Meteren also is a campaign consultant whose firm produced mailings for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, who defeated Tiahrt in the primary.
The State Committee's vote on the RNC position was 100 for Tiahrt, 55 for Van Meteren and 24 for Duncan.
The vote was the most notable business for the state party during its annual Kansas Day convention. The gathering attracted hundreds of party activists to Topeka, allowing them to mingle with elected officials and celebrate the GOP's sweep last year of all statewide and congressional races on the ballot for the first time since 1964.
In years past, conflict between the GOP's conservative and moderate wings over issues such as abortion and education spending has bedeviled the state party, creating political openings for Democrats. But last year, voter frustration with President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress helped the GOP unify.
Small-government, anti-abortion conservatives control the state party organization, but some tea party movement participants still worry about moderates remaining in the GOP.
One tea party-affiliated group from south-central Kansas had a display at the convention hotel, promoting "The Great Kansas RINO Hunt," with orange buttons featuring a silhouette of a rhinoceros in a target sight. RINO stands for Republican in Name Only.
The display also listed the photos and voting records of moderate GOP legislators on issues such as immigration and fiscal policy.
Members dismissed questions about whether the target imagery would be upsetting following the shootings earlier this month in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and wounded several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Many Republicans didn't appear to think so, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach wore one of the orange buttons.
"I think being politically correct is what has hurt this nation — you can't have a voice anymore," said the group's chairman, Larry Halloran, a Mulvane resident who trains electricians. "Part of this, too, is about trying to get the Republican Party to stand for something."
The three candidates who ran for the open RNC seat are all considered strong conservatives, and all have been active in the party for years. Some Republicans said the contest was a sign that party members are feeling good about its future and are eager to be involved.
Moran remained neutral, but some of the Republicans wearing his blue campaign T-shirts Saturday also wore stickers promoting Van Meteren's candidacy.
During his primary campaign, Moran portrayed Tiahrt, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, as a Washington insider. On Saturday, Van Meteren asked State Committee delegates whether the party exists "to do the bidding of our friends who walk the halls of power."
"I am just a different perspective," Van Meteren said before the meeting. "I believe that the problem we face as Republicans is that the grassroots base of our party is upset with us, and I don't think somebody who's been in Washington for the past 16 years understands what's motivating people."
The State Committee also rewarded Kansas Republican Party Chairwoman Amanda Adkins with another second two-year term, re-electing her unanimously after she faced no opposition.