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Who Gets Grass Roots in Kansas?

With a bad fundraising quarter behind Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Rep. Jerry Moran could officially be considered the frontrunner in the GOP primary for Senate in Kansas.

The two House Members are facing off in the Aug. 3 primary, and the contest for Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) seat has been mostly under the radar until recently.

But with Moran building almost three times the bank account as Tiahrt, it appears the western Kansas Congressman has pulled ahead in this race. Although Tiahrt’s supporters insist his conservative grass-roots support will push him past the finish line, it’s unclear whether the high turnout anticipated for the primary might drown out the right wing of the party.

“If you want to look at polls, Jerry Moran obviously leads in that. If you want to look at fundraising, Jerry Moran obviously leads,” Sedgwick County GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said. “There’s a lot of people, including myself, who say that Todd Tiahrt will have an advantage” with grass-roots conservatives.

Arnold, who chairs the committee in the county seat of Tiahrt’s House district, said conservatives show up “rain or shine” in Kansas primaries, which could give Tiahrt a needed boost to win the race. But with three competitive GOP primaries for House races in the Sunflower State, it won’t be just the conservatives who show up to vote in August.

At the end of 2009, Moran had $3.71 million in the bank and Tiahrt had about $1.32 million. What’s more, Moran raised about $404,000 in the fourth quarter of 2009, while Tiahrt raised $187,400 for his bid and spent $273,500 in the last three months of the year.

“There’s no doubt that Jerry has a huge money advantage. … He has a lot of money,” Tiahrt campaign manager Chuck Knapp said. “But money won’t determine the outcome of the race. Sure, I’d love to have $2 million more to spend. That would make our job easier. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the Republican activists who determine the winner of this Republican primary. And those folks are going to come out for Tiahrt.”

Part of the backdrop in this race is that the House ethics committee announced late last year that it was investigating Tiahrt as part of a far-reaching investigation into several lawmakers’ ties to the PMA Group lobbying firm that was raided by the FBI in late 2008. The ethics committee is expected to release its report by March 2, and it’s possible the matter has slowed national fundraising for Tiahrt in the meantime.

Knapp said the campaign spent $15,000 on legal fees, including some compliance costs, in the last quarter of 2009.

“We fully expect after March 2 that it will be fully behind us and we won’t have to deal with it for the rest of the campaign,” Knapp said.

One Kansas Republican operative, who declined to speak on the record, said it seems Tiahrt has exhausted his in-state fundraising resources and fallen behind in the money race because he isn’t doing as well with out-of-state donors.

“I think Todd’s reached that point,” the operative said. “You can’t squeeze any more out of the state. If anything is really hurting him in fundraising, it’s out-of-state fundraising because that’s the only place he can go right now.”

But while the investigation could have put a dent in Tiahrt’s national fundraising, those interviewed in the Sunflower State said they had not heard anything about the inquiry by the ethics committee.

Ronnie Metsker, the GOP chairman of the populous and key Johnson County, said he hasn’t seen anything on the issue — but he has seen a lot of the GOP Members, especially Tiahrt, in his district.

“I have actually seen more of Tiahrt in our county than I have of Moran, but I don’t know that means anything,” Metsker said. “I think that means that Todd Tiahrt has tried to make himself present in some of the circles where I have been.”

Metsker also said Tiahrt may be positioning himself as the more conservative candidate in the race. Indeed, Tiahrt is touting endorsements from the likes of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

“It appears as though Todd Tiahrt is seeking to position himself as more conservative, especially on the social front, pro-family, pro-life,” Metsker said.

In a phone interview, Moran disputed that characterization of the race and said his own conservative credentials are strong.

“Kansas is a conservative state and our focus is on Kansas,” he said. “I think the labels are overstated, but I’m clearly not fearful of stating that I’m a conservative Republican.”

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