Kansas GOP Primary "Endorsements"

On August 5th, Kansas Republicans will go to the polls to make choices for US Senate, Governor, and two of four contested congressional districts.  All eyes are on the Senate primary where incumbent Pat Roberts faces a serious challenge.  But before we get to that race, Sam Brownback seeks another term as Governor.  The national media is fixated on the Governor’s race and Brownback’s apparent problems. His approval ratings are in the dangerous 37% range, although up from a few months ago.  The key to his low approval ratings seems to be over educational funding and taxes and a standoff over judicial interference in the process.  A PPP poll showed Brownback in a dead heat with Democratic challenger, state house minority leader Paul Davis. {Disclaimer: PPP is a Democratic polling outfit}

Although it is difficult to believe that Kansas would give Davis a serious look, one must consider the fact that recently Kansas gave us Kathleen Sebelius as a governor.  In the primary, his opponent will be Jennifer Winn who is touting industrial hemp development as the cure-all for Kansas’ economy now and into the future.  Recently, she has tapped into the education dispute by highlighting waste and administrative costs.  Still, she sounds like she would divert more money into education rather than pursue more conservative reforms.  If Brownback wins his primary in a close race against Winn, this would indicate to me that Davis’ chances are enhanced come November.  If he loses, then all bets are off and we start anew since Davis’ whole campaign revolves around Brownback.  If he wins in a landslide, then I would increase his chances in November.  Even though he has some popularity problems at this point, the best choice on Tuesday is Sam Brownback.

In the Kansas 1st Congressional District, incumbent Republican Tim Huelskamp will face fellow Republican- Alan LaPolice.  On balance, LaPolice seems like a viable alternative to Huelskamp except his positions on health care and energy leave questions in my mind.  One supposes that if Huelskamp was to step down, LaPolice may be a decent alternative.  Democrats are not eyeing this district, but if LaPolice were to emerge the winner somehow, they just might.  Finding nothing seriously wrong with Tim Huelskamp, that is where the nod lies.  It should also be noted that he voiced his disapproval of the leadership of Boehner in the House and in 2013 he lost a House committee chairmanship because of it.  Therefore, having pissed off Boehner, he must be doing something right.  Also, some voices are supporting LaPolice for the sake of change.  But Huelskamp has been in Washington since only 2010.  Do we lump him in with entrenched establishment Republicans and demand he be dethroned?

In the Fourth District, incumbent Mike Pompeo looked like a shoo-in for reelection  until former congressman Todd Tiahrt decided he wanted his old seat back.   What should give anyone pause here is Tiahrt’s late entry into the race and fundraising disadvantage.  Another consideration is the move may be seen as political opportunism.  Both candidates are conservative.   Pompeo has built up a respectable $1.4 million war chest.  No matter who emerges on the GOP side, they should prevail in November and the 4th District will be none the worse for wear.  The district is reliably Republican of late although they did elect a Democrat as recently as 1992.  In the end, Pompeo has done nothing to warrant displacing him in the House.  This writer believes Mike Pompeo is the better choice.

As for the main event, Pat Roberts will face a Tea Party challenge from physician Milton Wolf.  Roberts has served since 1997 and his lack of presence in Kansas has become a campaign issue.  However, there are three other candidates on the primary ballot- state senator Dennis Pyle, Alvin Zahnter and someone named D.J. Smith.  We can just dismiss Smith because I can find nothing about him.  Zaunter seems a one trick pony: his website touts gun rights and has this gem of a statement, “I like my guns.”  Pyle could play the spoiler here.  He initially proposed that Republicans in the state be polled with the winner of that poll having the right to be the sole opponent to Roberts in the primary.  Milton Wolf immediately rejected that ploy knowing full well that a state senator would likely poll higher than a physician.  More on this in a minute…

Make no mistake- whoever wins this primary will in all probability win in November.  Kansas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s.  Chad Taylor has the inside track on the Democratic side.  A moderate Democrat may have a chance against a newcomer.  However, his website has no mention whatsoever about health care reform or education.  He touts green energy and decries GOP “attacks” on unions.  Hypothetical polls of the general election show Roberts handily defeating Taylor.  Wolf, on the other hand, would have a more difficult time of it.   But just as Pyle knew that he would poll higher than Wolf in the above instance, Wolf’s slim lead against Taylor in the polls is the same dynamic at work- name recognition.  With a primary victory and a general election campaign that sticks to the core issues this year, name recognition will be a concern of the past.  Additionally, some conservative group heavyweights are involved and Wolf’s name is becoming more known not just in Kansas, but nationally.  Additionally, Kansas is more red than Kentucky and the odds of a Tea Party upset of an entrenched Republican incumbent are greater here.

This primary is less about ideology and more about optics- where Roberts lives, where he fund raises, who donates to him, his length of service, etc.  To the north, we saw some of these same dynamics somewhat at work (albeit involving a open seat) where the favorite of the establishment GOP lost in Nebraska (thank you, Nebraska; Ben Sasse is the real deal).  Considering the fact that Kansas has a long history of sending Republicans to the Senate, that the primary challenger is clearly conservative, that any shortcomings (name recognition) can be overcome, that this is a Republican stronghold state, and that the Democratic opponent is out of the Kansas mainstream on some issues, the “endorsement” must go to Milton Wolf.

A special note:  polling indicates a Roberts victory here.  But, polling also showed Jack Kingston up over Perdue in Georgia in the week before their runoff and look what happened.  This writer is not so sure the same thing will happen in Kansas because the gap between Wolf and Roberts is much larger.  But, anything can happen and the only poll that really matters is the one by actual voters on Tuesday.