When newly elected National Republican Campaign Committee chief Rep. Tom Cole talks about specific seats he wants to take back in 2008, he repeatedly mentions Kansas’s 2nd district.
Cole (R-Okla.) referred to the seat as one of the targets that fits the criteria for an NRCC priority in 2008. It is one of 61 seats Democrats hold that voted for President Bush in 2004, and the Democrat who won it in the midterms did so with less than 55 percent of the vote.
That Democrat, Rep. Nancy Boyda (D), may have just been sworn in, but Republicans from Washington to Topeka are marking her name with a big, red bulls-eye.
“I certainly expect this to be one of their top-targeted races,” Boyda said. “I didn’t get into this thinking this would be a cakewalk.”
Boyda defeated then-Rep. Jim Ryun with 51 percent of the vote in a year that saw Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, running with a candidate for lieutenant governor who earlier in the year had defected from the Republican Party, win reelection with 57 percent.
Cole said 2006 was an anomaly in Kansas politics, an arena in which he has worked in the past.
“I’m right next door to Kansas and [I’ve] done a lot of political activity over there in another lifetime, and I can tell you that for the first time in all the years we’ve been up there, the legislative ballot in Kansas was generically Democrat,” Cole said. “That’s unbelievable. So, they’re probably not going to get another year like that.”
But if 2006 was a bad year for Republicans nationwide, in Kansas the party split in half like the Titanic: Both sides sank.
In a state long regarded as a bastion of conservative politics — President Bush won the 2nd district with 59 percent of the vote in 2004 — the GOP witnessed numerous defections to the Democratic Party, and a rift between the conservative and moderate wings of the party resulted in Democratic victories in traditional Republican strongholds.
The executive director of the state Democratic Party, Mike Gaughan, said as long as a faction of the Kansas GOP continues to focus solely on social issues such as abortion, candidates viewed as moderates, like Boyda, would reap the benefits.
“Certainly, there’s an element in the Republican Party that’s more interested in purging themselves than common-sense solutions for Kansas families,” Gaughan said.
Outgoing state GOP chairman Tim Shallenburger, conceding his tenure as chairman has been rocky at best, said that rift, combined with a poisoned national environment, was at the root of the GOP’s ills last year.
Phill Kline, a former state attorney general known nationally for his move to subpoena the records of state abortion clinics, drew a lot fire from moderate and independent voters, Shallenburger said.
Kline, who was defeated by another Republican defector, Paul Morrison, was on the list of names Shallenburger identified as potential challengers to Boyda, perhaps running as the standard-bearer for the conservative faction of the party. Kline, who doesn’t currently live in the district, did not return phone calls for comment.
“Unfortunately, the conservatives can’t seem to elect anybody,” Shallenburger said, adding that because of the rift he is anticipating a primary. “They can get them through primaries, but they can’t get them through generals.”
Shallenburger said a list of serious candidates should come to light after the state GOP’s Kansas Day convention later this month. Right now, Shallenburger, who isn’t running for reelection, said possible candidates include former state House Speaker Doug Mays, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh and state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins. Boyda said she anticipated Ryun might want a rematch.
Shallenburger, a former gubernatorial candidate in his own right (Cole served as his pollster), said he would be willing to discuss a possible run with the NRCC chairman, but right now he isn’t leaning toward a run.
Both Cole and Shallenburger said that while 2006 was a bad year for them because of an unfavorable national environment and party turmoil, 2008 will be different because a presidential election year will allow for GOP healing and unity.
“You know, Kansas hasn’t gone through some road to Damascus and morphed into a liberal state,” Cole said. “Next election cycle, the Republican presidential nominee, I’m willing to bet today, without knowing who it is or who the Democrats will have, will carry Kansas.
“You want to bet who’s going to win Kansas-02 in the presidential race? I’ve got a pretty good idea. I’m willing to make that prediction today.”
Shallenburger added that regardless of whom Republicans pick, state Republicans will unify in their dislike of the Democratic candidate. That, combined with county commissioner races, will drive turnout and grassroots efforts.
“I think a presidential election gives us common ground,” Shallenburger said. “If it’s [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton (D-N.Y.) or [Sen. Barack] Obama (D-Ill.), I can’t imagine that either of those two would gain much Republican support.”
But Shallenburger said that because Democrats already have proven they can win in the Republican district, much of the Republican strategy will depend on Boyda’s voting record.
Boyda might have given those aiming for her seat some early ammunition by voting for the House stem cell research bill last week.
But Boyda insists the often acidic ideological tones have subsided a great deal since her first congressional run in 2004, and though some voters might disagree with her on social issues like stem cell research, she said most will come to see her overall goal is to brighten the future for the district.
“I intend to just do my job,” she said. “It’s that simple.”