Rep. Moore Ponders Senate Bid in Kansas

Posted January 10, 2003 at 5:05pm

Buoyed by the Democrats’ convincing win in the 2002 Kansas gubernatorial election, Rep. Dennis Moore (D) is seriously considering a race against Sen. Sam Brownback (R) in 2004.

As the lone Democrat in the state’s six-person Congressional delegation, Moore’s name is regularly mentioned for higher office, but those familiar with his decision-making process believe he is taking a harder look at this Senate race than he has in the past.

Moore spokesman Jack Martin demurred when asked about his boss’s political future.

“This isn’t the first time he has been spoken to about this,” Martin said. “He is not looking ahead to 2004.”

Moore’s actions belie this claim.

Although he has conducted no polling to test his chances against Brownback, he has begun to have conversations with key state Democrats to test the viability of a Senate candidacy.

One of the people he has talked to is Jill Docking, Brownback’s opponent in the 1996 special election to replace Sen. Bob Dole (R).

Docking called Moore and encouraged him to look at the race, and she said that they have spoken several times since about the possibility.

“[Moore] would be the most serious candidate,” she said.

Brownback defeated Docking 54 percent to 43 percent to win the final two years of Dole’s term. He won his first full term with a more convincing 65 percent to 32 percent margin over little-known Paul Feleciano Jr. (D).

In spite of Brownback’s strong showing in 1998, state Democratic Party Chairman Tom Sawyer argues that “Brownback is the more vulnerable of our incumbent Senators.”

“[Sen. Pat] Roberts [R] is perceived to be much more moderate,” Docking explained.

Brownback was rated the 17th most conservative Senator in National Journal’s 2001 vote ratings; Roberts was 26th.

Roberts won a second term in 2002 after Democrats failed to field a candidate against him.

Former Agriculture Secretary and one-time Rep. Dan Glickman (D) was heavily recruited to run but decided against it, citing his unwillingness to engage in a partisan campaign in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But Glickman, who is the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, refused to rule out a run against Brownback himself, saying: “What’s happening in the world today does get my juices flowing.”

He added that Brownback is “somewhat vulnerable.”

“Sam Brownback is more of a polarizing figure [than Roberts] and he has taken much harder positions on the issues,” said Glickman. “In that sense he would rally the opposition easier.

“The downside is that Brownback has the capability of raising unlimited amounts of money and is no slouch in terms of his political skills,” Glickman observed.

Another strategist with Kansas ties took the comparison a step further.

“Brownback is much more aggressive, strident and mean-spirited than Roberts,” the source said.

Brownback showed $555,000 on hand in his June 30, 2002, report with the FEC but is capable of raising significant sums for his campaigns.

He spent $2.3 million in 1996 and $1.7 million in 1998.

Brownback also has significant personal wealth, which he could tap in the event of a close race.

Moore is an extremely strong fundraiser in his own right, bringing in $1.8 million in the last two years for his 2002 race.

And unlike Feleciano and Docking — who had never run for elected office although her husband was a former lieutenant governor — Moore would bring a more hefty political resume into a race against Brownback.

He swept into office in 1998, defeating one-term Rep. Vince Snowbarger (R) 52 percent to 48 percent in a race that Snowbarger seemed, at best, marginally interested in.

Despite the distinct Republican lean of his eastern Kansas district, which includes both Kansas City and Lawrence, Moore won re-election in 2000 and 2002 with 50 percent.

“[Moore] has that public service record that they can go to,” Docking said.

Another advantage for Moore is that he hails from Wichita, located in the 4th district, which would allow him to somewhat easily broaden his appeal beyond the Kansas City area.

Voters in the 4th district have shown a willingness to support Democrats, electing Glickman to Congress from 1976 to 1994.

One major factor in Moore’s decision-making process, observers said, is the likelihood that he will face a stiff Republican challenge every two years and could end up losing sometime in the next few cycles.

Under this line of thinking, Moore might prefer to take on a difficult challenge to Brownback in hopes of winning a six-year Senate term rather than continue to engage in drag-out scrums every two years in his House district.

Moore is also likely emboldened by the successful campaign waged by Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius (D) in 2002.

Sebelius benefited from the continued fracture between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party to win a surprisingly easy 53 percent to 45 percent victory.

In the August GOP primary, Brownback backed conservative state Treasurer Tim Shallenburger, while outgoing Gov. Bill Graves (R) weighed in behind a more moderate candidate.

Shallenburger won the primary but failed to unite moderates behind him. Graves did not offer an endorsement for more than a month, and when he did it was tepid at best.

A similar scenario played out in the 3rd district Republican primary, where Brownback endorsed conservative physician Jeff Colyer while Graves backed moderate airline pilot Adam Taff. Taff narrowly won the primary but was unable to topple Moore, and he is considering running again.

Sebelius’ ability to exploit the ideological chasm in the Republican Party could provide a worthwhile blueprint for a Moore candidacy.

“The Sebelius model shows that Kansas voters support independent-minded candidates regardless of party,” said one Democratic strategist with a history in Kansas politics.

Although he rejected direct comparisons between Sebelius and Moore, state Democratic Chairman Sawyer did note that “Kathleen did an excellent job of getting moderate Republican support” — a knack that Moore has shown in his 3rd district campaigns, as well.

A number of sources caution, however, that Moore is nowhere close to making a decision, and that even if he enters the race it will be an uphill struggle.

“It is never easy for Democrats in Kansas,” said Sawyer, adding that it has been more than 70 years since his party won a Senate race in the state.

George McGill was the last Democratic Senator from the Sunflower State, first winning election in 1930.

The closest a Democrat has come in recent memory was in 1974 when lawyer and doctor Bill Roy (D) took 49 percent of the vote against Dole, then a freshman Senator.

“It is a really tough race no matter how you slice it,” Docking concluded.