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A Pair of Jayhawk Seat Scrambles

The departures of longtime Kansas Republican Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt to run for Senate in 2010 has created a pair of open-seat Congressional races in the Jayhawk State.

Given that Moran and Tiahrt have held onto those districts for seven and eight terms, respectively, local Republicans have been champing at the bit to run in their stead. Both races are expected to feature crowded Republican primaries that will likely determine the next Member of Congress from the staunchly conservative territory.

Moran and Tiahrt are challenging each other for retiring Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R) seat, now that the three-term Senator has his eyes on the governor’s mansion.

In Moran’s 1st district, at least three candidates have already lined up to run for the GOP nod. But given that there have been only three Members representing that district in the past 40 years, a bevy of other Republicans are expected to join the race before the filing deadline.

“It’s one of the 20 best Republican districts in the country,” said one Kansas Republican activist. “If you ever wanted to be in Congress and you live in that district, you’ve got to give this a shot now.”

As an elected official, state Sen. Tim Huelskamp (R) believes he has the inside track to the GOP nomination. Known as a firebrand conservative in the state Legislature, Huelskamp already represents a small portion of the district.

“I’m the only [candidate] who actually has experience, has actually cast a vote before,” he said in a phone interview.

Former Brownback Chief of Staff Rob Wasinger is also running in the primary after he moved his family back to western Kansas last year from the Washington, D.C., area. Wasinger worked for Brownback for about 12 years on Capitol Hill.

“A lot of people serve the state of Kansas in a variety of ways,” Wasinger said. “I was serving the people of Kansas in Washington, D.C.”

A third candidate, businessman Tim Barker, is also running, but could not be reached for comment.

According to online fundraising reports, Huelskamp and Wasinger had about the same amount of money in the bank at the end of 2008, with $99,000 and $95,000, respectively. Barker raised about $30,000 but had a little more than $2,000 in his campaign account at the end of the year.

“We lead in cash on hand, and we’re excited about that,” Huelskamp said. “We fully expected that someone who has been an insider in Washington for the past few years to have raised a lot more money.”

And according to campaign finance records, Wasinger did not report any itemized contributions from the mostly rural 1st district. Wasinger defended his fundraising, saying he expects to raise more in the district once he expands his campaign.

“I look at all the money that I’ve raised, all that money is going to be spent in the district,” Wasinger said. “It’s my very own contribution to economic growth.”

Wasinger said he asked his former boss to stay out of the race and not endorse anyone — a pledge that Huelskamp said Brownback also repeated to him.

Recent polling from Moran’s Senate campaign shows he is well-known and popular in the district, but the Congressman is expected to stay out of the race and not endorse a successor.

“Those are big footsteps that anyone has to try to fill,” said a Republican operative familiar with the district. “Jerry has a tremendous reputation for staying in touch with that district, just doing his annual listening tour.”

Similarly, Tiahrt’s long tenure in the 4th district also makes the GOP primary a free-for-all. Unlike the 1st district, however, no candidate has officially filed with the Federal Election Commission for Tiahrt’s seat yet.

But that will change this weekend when, according to state Republican Party Chairman Christian Morgan, state Sen. Dick Kelsey (R) will announce his candidacy. In addition to Kelsey, state Sen. Susan Wagle (R) and Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt (R) are actively looking at running for the seat.

Republican National Committeeman Mike Pompeo is also believed to be interested in running, along with Wichita Vice Mayor Sue Schlapp and her son, former White House Political Director Matt Schlapp.

Also unlike the sprawling 1st district, candidates for the 4th district will focus on the Wichita area.

“It’s almost like survival of the fittest down there,” Morgan said. “Whoever can get that Wichita business community and money behind their campaign, holds the keys to the city.”

According to a Republican activist familiar with the field, the primary could sort itself out into two separate tiers. Wagle, Pompeo and Matt Schlapp would be considered top-level candidates, while Kelsey and Schmidt would be considered second tier. Sue Schlapp, the activist said, would fit in between the two tiers.

Both House seats are expected to stay in Republican hands in 2010 and so is Brownback’s Senate seat — that is, unless national Democrats can convince Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) to run, which would set up a competitive race between the governor and a Member of Congress.

Recently, however, Sebelius has been mentioned as a potential nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services after former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) withdrew his nomination because of tax problems.

When asked about a potential Senate race in 2010, Sebelius spokeswoman Beth Martino declined to specifically address the race.

“Right now, Gov. Sebelius is focusing her energy on the budget and the economic challenges facing Kansas,” Martino said.

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