MCPHERSON, Kan. — Driving through central Kansas, amid the Flint Hills, prairie grasses, hay fields and cow pastures, there is little to conjure up images of a sparkling yellow brick road, Emerald City or ruby slippers. But on the campaign trail here, “Wizard of Oz” references are always appreciated.
When Rep. Todd Tiahrt stopped in last week for a town hall, he couldn’t resist comparing his battle against fellow Rep. Jerry Moran for the Republican Senate nomination to a scene in the epic movie where the true identity of the wizard is revealed.
“There are some differences, and I’m just kind of pulling the curtains back like Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz,'” he told the audience gathered at the Well, a Christian bookstore, gift shop and cafe. “I’m pulling the curtain back on Jerry Moran. He’s a good man, but he’s not a good conservative. And I don’t think he’d be a good Senator.”
McPherson (pronounced Mc-fer-son, because, as they say here, there’s no fear in McPherson) is in the “Big First” — the expansive western House district that Moran has represented since 1996.
Tiahrt’s message seemed to be received favorably among the 30 or so Moran constituents who showed up. But with only three weeks before the Aug. 3 primary, time is running short for Tiahrt’s efforts to expose what he argues is the real Moran — the man who “wants to be popular [so] he puts his finger in the air” — to the broader statewide audience.
Moran has consistently led in fundraising and in most polls. A SurveyUSA poll done recently showed him 20 points ahead of Tiahrt, whose campaign then released a poll that showed the race tied.
While Moran and Tiahrt have been focused on exploiting the differences in their largely similar voting records, most voters seem to agree that both are conservative — they just have to decide whom they like better.
“They’re both great candidates,” said Jerry Malone, a Republican running in the 3rd district who is undecided in the Senate race. “I wish that Pat Roberts was retiring, and we could send both as our Senators. They’re both that good.”
In a cycle where the spotlight has focused on races defined by anti-Washington sentiment, establishment versus outsider struggles, tea party influence and the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, this race between two long-tenured Congressmen has hardly garnered national attention. But it is has become as nasty and personal as many of the higher-profile contests.
The stakes are high because the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the state’s junior Senator next year.
Tiahrt is no doubt viewed as the more aggressive candidate, a designation that cuts both ways with voters.
“There’s a different mentality. Moran’s more of a compromiser, and Tiahrt’s a little more of a fighter,” said Dave Bohnemblust, an oil company engineer who skipped work to hear Tiahrt speak in McPherson last week. “I think what Republicans need is more of that fighting mentality now.”
Herb and Arva Wenger seemed to agree. They had watched the first televised debate between Moran and Tiahrt the night before and turned out for Tiahrt’s McPherson town hall after hearing Moran speak there earlier.
The couple like Moran, but compared to Tiahrt they say he seems more timid.
“I think he seems much more proactive,” said Herb Wenger, a retired industrial mechanic. “Jerry Moran did not mention anything that he had presented to Congress. Tiahrt has quite a list of things.”
But Tiahrt also has been more aggressive in going after Moran in his campaign ads, and being viewed as the more negative candidate has clearly turned some voters off.
“I liked Tiahrt until he started attacking Moran,” said Dave King, another 3rd district candidate who will vote for Moran. “They’ve been cohorts in Congress for I don’t know how many years. To behave like that just makes me sick. Moran’s being a gentleman.”
At a lunchtime speech on July 6 to the Shawnee County Pachyderm Club in Topeka, Betty Pistorius raised her hand and thanked Moran for “not being negative in your advertising.”
Afterward, Pistorius said she is a Republican precinct captain and really should be neutral in the race. But she is supporting Moran because she was turned off by Tiahrt’s attacks.
Moran says he isn’t that surprised by the negative nature of the race, but it shouldn’t be excused.
“I’m a little offended by the folks who just write off this kind of campaigning as that’s politics,” Moran said. “I think politicians ought to be held to at least the same standard, if not a higher standard, of the way you conduct business.”
There’s No Place Like Home
Tiahrt acknowledges the campaign’s intense negativity, but he blames Moran for throwing the first punch.
The mud being thrown recently between the two camps has centered around who spends more time in the state. The debate was touched off when Moran charged in a campaign ad that “unlike Todd Tiahrt, Jerry actually lives here.”
“He’s said I don’t live in Kansas. That’s pretty negative. I’ve lived in my house longer than he’s lived in his. And I have a deed to prove that,” Tiahrt said.
Tiahrt said his family decided to live in Northern Virginia during the school year when his kids were growing up.
“He chastises me for keeping my family together?” he said. “That’s pretty personal and pretty negative, too.”
To reinforce his message that he’s more Kansan than his opponent, Moran explains to audiences the reasons why the practice of coming home every week has kept him grounded.
“Every weekend that I’m home, I get a dose of Kansas common sense and good judgement,” he says. “It’s church on Sunday. It’s the grocery store and the post office.”
Moran’s living arrangement in the nation’s capital isn’t without some controversy either.
“He sleeps in Washington every night we’re in Washington. I don’t,” Tiahrt said, referring to the C Street townhouse where Moran lives with several other Members.
Last month, the Office of Congressional Ethics closed its investigation into whether at least five Members, including Moran, received an improper gift in the form of below-market rent at the house.
Among Moran’s backers are people who have lived at the C Street residence, including Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). But voters don’t seem to be aware of the C Street controversy or care.
“I know Congressman Moran lives here and is back home,” Pistorius said.
Grass Roots and Geography
In separate interviews, both men said they feel good about the race.
Tiahrt feels confident his campaign poll is an accurate reflection and that the contest is neck and neck.
“I’ve been through a lot of tough campaigns,” Tiahrt said. “And there’s a feel to them. And you can tell when things are going well and when they’re not.”
Tiahrt worked for Boeing in Wichita for 12 years before being elected to Congress in 1994. He beat then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D) by relying on a network of religious conservatives.
He said his grass-roots support will be what makes the difference in the Senate race as well.
“It’s not the commercials as much as it is the people. It’s not the message as much as it is the people who believe in the message,” he said. “What I believe will make me successful is the boots on the ground.”
Moran similarly said he’s confident, based not only on polls but also on his interaction with voters.
“Most of what I know about politics and campaigns and elections is what the sense is when I stick my hand out and introduce myself to a voter,” he said. “Everywhere I am it’s just a positive feel.”
Moran’s first job in politics was as an intern for then-Rep. Keith Sebelius (R). He was elected to the state Senate in 1988 and served until winning a relatively easy election to Congress in 1996.
While the Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County are a critical battleground in the Senate race — and both men have spent considerable time there — each Member’s respective home turf is also important.
“Most Members of Congress can’t fathom that a town of 48,000 is my urban area,” Moran jokingly tells the Pachyderm Club referring to Salina, his rural district’s largest city.
There is little dispute that Moran began the race with a strong geographical advantage because he represents the most Republican district in the state. It is also the geographic base from which former Sen. Bob Dole (R) and Roberts were both elected.
Roughly one-third of Republican primary voters reside in the 69-county district. By contrast, he says, Tiahrt starts with a much smaller base of support.
“There is value to coming from the district that I come from,” Moran said. “The 4th district is the least Republican and the least percentage of Republican primary voters. There is that kind of natural geographic advantage. But no part of Kansas do I take for granted.”
Tea Party and Palin Power
One of the biggest wild cards at this point is the influence of the tea party in the race.
Tiahrt claims the mantle of “the tea party guy,” and he has the endorsement of the Tea Party Express and others aligned with the decentralized grass-roots movement, as well as national conservatives such as Karl Rove and Sean Hannity.
“I’m clearly the guy who’s fighting for the same values they’re fighting for,” he said.
Last month, Tiahrt scored the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, although it is unclear whether she plans to do anything other than give her verbal stamp of approval.
For some voters, that’s all it takes.
One woman at the McPherson town hall asked whether Tiahrt had Palin’s support. When he nodded, she gave a thumbs-up and said, “All right, that’s just about all I need to know.”
Moran, however, said he has plenty of support from activists who are aligned with the tea party, and he has no sense that the movement is behind his opponent. Talking to voters here seems to bear that out.
“It surprises me that the tea party is supporting Tiahrt,” said Pistorius, the precinct captain in Topeka. “I don’t understand that. I thought it was the abortion issue. But Congressman Moran, he’s against abortion. So I don’t know what the deal is. I’m for the tea party.”
Spending and taxes have certainly been a central issue in the race for both candidates. Tiahrt has accused Moran of voting for tax increases. “I can’t think of a tax he hasn’t voted to increase,” Tiahrt charged at last week’s debate.
Moran has focused on Tiahrt’s service on the Appropriations Committee, and in his stump speeches he rails against a culture of overspending. Tiahrt was one of seven lawmakers cleared by the ethics committee in February as part of its investigation of Members’ ties to the PMA lobbying firm.
“Congressman Tiahrt’s focus in Washington, D.C., has been about spending. And that’s a difference between the two of us,” Moran said.
DeMint — known as “Senator Tea Party” — came to a town hall in Olathe on Friday to stump for Moran and reinforce his fiscal record.
“Sarah’s done a lot of good, but I don’t think she knows the candidates as well as I do,” DeMint told reporters when asked about being on the opposite side of Palin in the race.
Diane Weaver, who attended the Moran-DeMint town hall, said she’s a big fan of Palin as well as part of the tea party. But she’s supporting Moran, who’s clearly done a better job in reaching her with his message.
“I like it that he’s a Kansan. I like it he comes home. That’s a lot of effort on his part,” she said. “He’s not that Washington insider. I’m not sure with Tiahrt.”