Not in 2008 anymore: 2010 contest for Kansas Senate heats up in a hurry

The waning days of 2008 are seeing the first big race of 2010 emerge as House members lay the groundwork to replace retiring Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

Less than 72 hours after he was reelected, Rep. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug bill Senators inch forward on federal privacy bill MORE (R-Kan.) officially entered the race for Brownback’s seat, setting the stage for a potential primary battle with the state’s other Republican House member, Rep. Todd Tiahrt.

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Tiahrt hinted at his own candidacy almost immediately, telling The Associated Press that Kansas voters didn’t want another senator from western Kansas. Both Moran and the state’s other senator, Republican Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman The Hill's Morning Report - Intel panel readies to hand off impeachment baton The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' MORE, come from the area.

Tiahrt isn’t quite jumping in the race yet, but Moran is pulling away with his fundraising. His entry lays a marker and could force Tiahrt’s hand in the coming days and weeks.

Moran has actually been preparing his Senate campaign for months, building up a war chest that ranks with the biggest in the House, at $2.4 million as of mid-October. He had no trouble holding his House seat two weeks ago and was able to bank about 80 percent of the $1.5 million he raised this cycle.

Tiahrt’s campaign has also been banking extra funds and had $1.3 million.

Kansas GOP consultant Aaron Trost said Tiahrt should not be counted out, but that Moran begins with an edge because of his cash-on-hand and constituent base.

For the last 12 years, Moran has represented a vast western district that covers about two-thirds of the state and is highly rural. It also includes more GOP primary voters than Tiahrt’s Wichita district, where he has served for 14 years.

“It’s hard to break through in western Kansas,” Trost said. “Out there, if you have a congressman or a politician who’s been working and meeting with people for several years, that’s very powerful.”

In response to Tiahrt’s assertion that one western Kansas senator was sufficient, Moran spokesman Travis Murphy said voters will “look at who best represents their interests and their needs, regardless of where they’re from.”

Murphy declined to speculate on a match-up with Tiahrt.

In a statement, Tiahrt spokesman Sam Sackett said his boss has received lots of encouragement to run but is focused on his House job for now.

At the same time, he hinted that Moran shouldn’t get too comfortable.

“Given how important this Senate seat is to our state, I fully expect a competitive primary in 2010,” Sackett said.

Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University, said a primary would likely be decided by the east, in fast-growing suburbs of Kansas City.

Johnson County is home to nearly a quarter of the state’s voters, and both Moran’s and Tiahrt’s districts are far removed from the area, making them unknown quantities there.

“Those voters have been known to be rather fickle and hard to predict,” Aistrup said. “It’s got a large concentration of Republican primary voters, and they turn out.”

Whoever emerges from the GOP primary will be the prohibitive favorite for Brownback’s seat, Aistrup said, unless Gov. Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusJerry Moran: 'I wouldn't be surprised' if Pompeo ran for Senate in Kansas Mark Halperin inks book deal 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE (D) winds up running.

Sebelius is term-limited in 2010, but she is thought to be a strong candidate for an appointment in the Obama administration.

{mospagebreak}Her 2006 reelection highlighted a banner year for Kansas Democrats, which had some suggesting that the state was trending blue. The party wasn’t able to turn the national Democratic momentum into big gains this year, though, and it even lost a congressional seat.

The loser of that congressional race, outgoing Rep. Nancy Boyda (D), is thought to be another potential Senate candidate, as is Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore. But Boyda is thought to be more likely to seek her old seat again, and Moore has shown little interest in running for Senate.

Former Rep. Jim Slattery (D), who took a disappointing 36 percent in his challenge to Roberts this year, has said he will not run for Brownback’s seat.

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Should Sebelius pass on the race or head a different direction, about the only thing that could help Democrats win would be a nasty GOP primary.

The state Republican Party has shown the ability to provide just that, with a record of dirty primaries that includes one from this year. State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins defeated former Rep. Jim Ryun to become the GOP candidate against Boyda. She was able to recover from the nasty primary battle to go on to a 51-46 win.

The race was a repeat of divisions that have existed for decades, with centrists like Jenkins clashing with conservatives like Ryun.

Moran is seen as a conservative with an independent streak, while Tiahrt is more closely aligned with Christian conservatives.

State GOP executive director Christian Morgan said both candidates should appeal to all members of the party, but said he’d like to avoid matching them up with each other if at all possible.

“They know that the last thing that I want as executive director of the party is to see these two guys go after each other,” Morgan said.

Morgan noted he would also be faced with a pair of open congressional races if there is a primary. Moran’s seat is already attracting GOP candidates, including state Sen. Tim Huelskamp and former Brownback Chief of Staff Rob Wasinger.

Morgan cautioned that the loser of a GOP Senate primary might have a hard time recovering.

“One of the things Kansas Republicans have is a deep bench,” Morgan said. “You add a primary loss to your record and your effectiveness in the future is lowered quite a bit.”