TOPEKA, Kan. — Whether House Democrats can sustain and grow their 15-seat majority in 2008 could depend on freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda’s (D) ability to hold the Republican-leaning 2nd district in the midst of a GOP onslaught that’s already under way.
And Boyda knows it.
“In Washington, this race gets a lot of attention, because I have the biggest target on my back,” she told constituents late last week during a town-hall-style meeting in Troy, a farming community of just more than 1,000 people in northeastern Kansas.
The campaign for control of the House is in full swing in this vast, mostly rural district of rolling, tree-dotted farm hills and winding rivers that also includes the state capital of Topeka, a portion of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, and Manhattan, home to Kansas State University.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has been running radio ads that attempt to tie Boyda to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — Republican activists here call her “Nancy Squared” — while the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees is up on television with spots defending the Congresswoman.
Since January, Boyda has had a full-time opponent: the man she ousted last fall.
Ex-Rep. Jim Ryun (R) is on the campaign trail nearly seven days a week, working to rebuild the support of the voters who fired him in November. State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R) also is set to enter the race for the GOP nomination, with one knowledgeable Kansas Republican predicting she’ll report $350,000 raised at the end of June.
In an interview in Topeka on Friday following a tour of the 330-employee Martin Tractor Co., whose owner has been a longtime supporter, Ryun acknowledged that he thought “maybe it was time to move on” following his 4-point defeat in November.
“But as I listened to constituents and supporters back here, their response was, we need you back in there — we want you to go back in. We think you can win this seat back.”
Channeling Dennis Moore
Democrats captured control of the House last year on the strength of freshmen such as Boyda, who ousted the five-term incumbent Ryun despite the fact a majority of voters in Kansas’ 2nd district disagree with her on key issues.
To a large extent, the 2008 race will hinge on Boyda’s ability to cast herself as a moderate, practical problem-solver that her constituents can depend on when they need help, as opposed to an out-of-step-with-the-district liberal who makes it possible for Pelosi to remain Speaker.
Boyda, who had not previously held elected office, has moved aggressively to compensate for her political differences with the majority of her constituents by modeling herself after Rep. Dennis Moore (D) in the neighboring 3rd district in the Kansas City suburbs.
Moore has helped Boyda build her constituent services operation, the Congresswoman revealed in an interview Saturday morning, as she and her husband, Steve, drove from Topeka to Ottawa for another of the many “Congress on Your Corner” events she held at community centers and coffee shops during Memorial Day recess.
Now in his fifth term representing a Republican-leaning seat, which he originally won thanks in part to internal GOP strife that pitted moderates against conservatives, Moore has shed the label of perennial target and solidified himself politically by cutting the image of a common-sense legislator who works hard to get things done in Washington, D.C., while simultaneously providing first-rate constituent services at home.
Boyda is aiming to do the same.
Boyda has joined the GOP-dominated House Immigration Reform Caucus and staunchly opposes the tentative compromise on immigration reform recently reached in the Senate. She told several town hall audiences during the Memorial Day recess that her motto on the issue is “enforcement first.”
GOP Sees Different Dynamic
Republicans in Washington and Kansas say 2008 will be different than 2006 because Boyda’s voting record already is making her an easy political target.
Among her missteps, they say, was her decision to co-sponsor a bill that could make it easier for workers to unionize, her vote for a budget bill that the NRCC claims includes “one of the largest tax hikes in history,” and her support for what the committee refers to as “egregious pork-barrel spending.”
Republican operatives also note that 2008 is a presidential cycle and should produce a bigger turnout that is mostly sympathetic to GOP candidates.
Boyda, they point out, actually got fewer raw votes in 2006 than she did in 2004, when she lost to Ryun by 15 points. Local Republican operatives and activists also point out that Ryun ran an extremely lackluster campaign — a point the former Congressman concedes — and vow that Boyda will not have the same advantage in 2008, regardless of who emerges from the GOP primary.
“I’m not sure what happened last time, but we hardly heard anything,” said Jerry Zielinski, 42, a component technician at Martin Tractor Co. who falls on the conservative end of the Republican spectrum. “When he was running last time, golly, for every five or six Nancy Boyda commercials, there was maybe only one for Jim Ryun.”
At the Congress on Your Corner event at the Troy Community Center, which drew about 35 people, there were signs that the Congresswoman is making inroads with Republicans.
John Manyon, a 71-year-old military veteran and registered Republican who voted for Ryun last year and described himself as “pretty conservative,” said Boyda is doing better than he anticipated. Even though he referred to Pelosi as a “wacko” during the open-forum portion of the event and urged Boyda not to align herself with the Speaker, Manyon said in an interview that it’s possible he might vote for Boyda in 2008.
“I’m happy with her right now … I think she’s straightforward and honest,” he said.
The Personal Touch
Congress on Your Corner, the brainchild of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), allows constituents to seek help resolving problems with federal agencies and is designed to allow freshman Members to build personal relationships with constituents.
One local newspaper reporter with more than two decades of experience covering the region said he couldn’t remember a federal lawmaker ever journeying to Troy for an event like the one Boyda held on Thursday.
Similarly, Mike Sullivan, the top civilian official at the U.S. Coast Guard Personnel Service Center, said Friday during Boyda’s tour of the downtown Topeka facility that she was the first federal lawmaker — elected in Kansas or otherwise — to ever request an on-site informational review of what the office does.
“She’s got a great work ethic, she’s likeable, and she’s hit the ground running,” said Jim Cates, a conservative talk-radio host and Ryun supporter whose Topeka-based morning drive-time show, which reaches most of the 2nd district, features a monthly appearance by Boyda.
A Fresh Start
Ryun, a former championship track star and Olympic medalist, readily acknowledges that he ran a poor campaign in 2006.
He has cleaned house and brought in a completely new political team, anchored by former NRCC Deputy Political Director Jonathan Poe, now a consultant at Anthem Media, and campaign manager Kyle Robertson, a former NRCC field director. Ryun’s wife, Anne, and daughter, Catharine, regularly join him on the trail, with his daughter on sabbatical from the White House and serving as an unpaid campaign volunteer in charge of fundraising.
Ryun, who must get past Jenkins to earn another shot at Boyda, does not completely accept the knock on him voiced by several Republicans in the 2nd district that his office ran a lousy constituent services operation, attributing much, though not all, of this critique to the fact that he was a better “workhorse” than he was a “show horse.”
“We worked hard on constituent services. But obviously there’s some places where we didn’t answer all the questions and not everything was done to the satisfaction of constituents. For that, I will rededicate my efforts to that,” Ryun said. “But I think the bigger problem is just not talking about what we have done.”
Darrell Bloomfield, 60, a part-time trolley operator in Fort Scott, backs up Ryun on that point.
Just before the former Congressman braved a driving rainstorm Friday — sans umbrella — to walk the eight-block-long Good Ol’ Days Festival parade in Fort Scott, an historic community of just more than 15,000 people in Southeastern Kansas, Bloomfield walked up to Ryun to shake his hand and thank him for help on a veterans’ issue. In that Republican enclave, it was evident that Ryun still has a warm relationship with many voters in the district, as several parade-goers greeted him by name and promised to support him next year.
“I hope we get you back in there,” Bloomfield said, expressing a sentiment that also was in abundance the following day as Ryun walked the grandstands during the drag races at Heartland Park Topeka racetrack. “You’ve got my vote, and I can get you five more.”
Clearly, however, this sentiment is not universal, and the charges that Ryun lost touch with the district and that his constituent services operation was sub-par are going to have to be addressed if he hopes to be successful in both the primary and the general election.
Jenkins, in an interview in her office across the street from the state Capitol, signaled that her line of attack in the primary could involve hitting Ryun on his work ethic, although she called Ryun a “good friend” and said she planned to run a positive campaign.
“Everybody wants to follow the guy in a job who’s been fired, because you look like a superstar,” said Jenkins, a certified public accountant by trade and a former state legislator. “How about we offer somebody that agrees with [voters] on the majority of the major issues, and knows how to work, and cares enough to show up? That’s an easy choice for most Kansans.”
Although the GOP primary could be defined by the ideological split that has hurt the Kansas party for the past decade, Jenkins declined to label herself, saying simply that she views herself as a “Republican.” But Republican operatives in Kansas refer to her as a moderate and Ryun as a conservative.
When asked, Jenkins said she did not have a position on the illegal immigration bill being discussed in the Senate because her current duties have not allowed her time to review it. Jenkins described abortion as horrific but said it should be legal in cases involving rape, incest and the health of the mother.
Jenkins’ subtle dig at Ryun represented the views of many self-described conservative Republicans who turned up at Boyda’s events. These voters were critical of Boyda and her views and said they wouldn’t necessarily vote for her in 2008. But some of them appeared steadfast in their commitment to shun Ryun.
“We’ve had him, I’ve seen what he is, he is not what this country needs, because the fight, it just isn’t there,” said Jim Foster, 57, after telling Boyda during the open-forum portion of a Congress on Your Corner event in Ottawa that he disagrees with her stance on the Iraq War.
Foster, who voted for Ryun in the previous cycle “reluctantly,” said he might vote for a Libertarian candidate next year if Ryun wins the nomination, even though he agrees with Ryun “90 percent” of the time.
Boyda acknowledged that some of her views run antithetical to the majority of voters in her district. But she believes she can overcome this hurdle in the same manner she did last year, by communicating with her constituents on a regular basis and eschewing the 30-second sound bite in favor of heavy grass-roots campaigning that relies on personal contacts and extensive advertising in many small, local newspapers.
“Ultimately, [2nd district voters] are just practical people. They want good government, they want somebody to be their voice,” Boyda said. “They recognize that we’re part of a national discussion, and a global discussion. They just want their voice to be part of it.”
“And if I had to say,” she continued, “that was ultimately why I think they fired Jim. I think they were trying to say to him: ‘We want to be heard.’”