A Kansas Two-Step in 2010?

Posted November 26, 2008 at 3:23pm

For once, nothing is the matter with Kansas.

That’s because for the first time since 1996, there will be an open Senate seat — and an opportunity for two longtime House Members to move to the other chamber.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has announced he will not run for a third term, leaving the door wide open for a primary battle between GOP Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt. Moran has reportedly filed the paperwork to run for the seat, while Tiahrt said he plans to announce his steering committee this week.

“I’m in the process of pulling together in a steering committee and I’m moving forward with that plan,” Tiahrt said in a phone interview. “Our steering committee is going to go public probably [this] week.”

Tiahrt has been in office since 1994 — two years before Moran was elected to Congress. Tiahrt said he considered himself to be “good friends in a lot of respects” with Moran, though he added that the two differ in their “approaches.”

“I think there are some difference between us, geographically certainly is one, but also in our way in which we approach Kansas,” Tiahrt said.

One Kansas Republican called a potential Tiahrt/Moran matchup a “personality” primary, or a contest that will be determined by the likability of either candidate.

“Tiahrt is more your drinking buddy. Moran’s more of your class president,” the Republican said.

One thing this primary will not be, however, is another conservative-versus-moderate ideological battle that has played out in Kansas in recent cycles, according to Kansas Republican Party Executive Director Christian Morgan.

“There’s going to be attempts to do this as a typical Kansas Republican versus conservative blood bath,” Morgan said. “But both of these candidates have significant support from all parts of the party.”

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the most promising Democrat in the state who could run for the Senate seat, was elected to a first term in 2002 in part as a result of this ideological rift in the Republican Party. However, Sebelius is said to be more interested in a post in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration than running for Senate.

“I have no idea in hell who the Democrats are going to put up because their bench is thinner than the [Kansas City] Chiefs,” Morgan said.

Another potential Democratic candidate is Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a former Republican from the party’s moderate wing who switched sides to run with Sebelius in her 2006 re-election campaign. Rep. Dennis Moore (D) could also make a bid for the Senate, but it’s doubtful he would be interested in leaving his relatively safe seat for a risky Senate run — no Democrat has won a Senate election in Kansas since 1930.

Meanwhile, Moran and Tiahrt’s pending departures from their House seats set the stage for a handful of Republicans waiting in the wings to run for Congress.

In Moran’s 1st district, which includes almost all of western Kansas, state Sen. Tim Huelskamp (R) has announced his interest in running for the seat. Huelskamp has been preparing his bid for a while: He opened a federal campaign account in 2006 when Moran was considering a run for governor and has $25,000 to start his bid.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone the last couple weeks, and we already have a campaign account open,” Huelskamp said in a phone interview.

Brownback’s former chief of staff, Rob Wasinger, is also said to be interested in running for the 1st district seat. Other potential Republican candidates include state Speaker Melvin Neufeld and state Senate President Steve Morris, both of whom hail from western Kansas.

The 4th district, which includes Wichita and the rural area that surrounds it, also votes overwhelmingly for Republicans.

State Sen. Susan Wagle could run for Tiahrt’s seat if she loses the leadership race for state Senate president today, according to one knowledgeable Kansas Republican. Wagle was mentioned as a possible candidate in 1994, when Tiahrt ran for the seat for the first time. State Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt would also be a formidable candidate, according to party sources.

Republicans also say White House Political Affairs Director Matt Schlapp could run for Tiahrt’s seat. Another likely candidate is Schlapp’s mother, Wichita City Councilwoman Sue Schlapp. The Schlapp advantage could be in Wichita’s Sedgwick County, which along with Tiahrt’s support, is considered key to winning the district in the GOP primary.

The primary will likely be held in the first week of August 2010, according to the Kansas secretary of State’s office.