Politics & Government

Kansas congressmen in pitched battle to succeed Brownback in Senate

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Jerry Moran had a decision to make one Saturday in September: Get behind the wheel for a 270-mile trip to suburban Kansas City for a 15-minute speech — or not.

The U.S. Senate candidate stepped on the gas.

That Moran knew he'd have to turn around and drive home to Hays, Kan., that same night, completing a 540-mile round trip, wasn't reason enough to bypass the third annual Republican Roundup in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb on the Kansas side of the state line.

It was, after all, this area, Johnson County, that would be ground zero in the burgeoning Republican primary race between two Kansas congressmen: Moran and Todd Tiahrt of Wichita.

As 2009 winds down, the two GOP heavyweights seem to be everywhere at once in a part of the state where neither is particularly well known.

“My wife says I should rent an apartment up here,” Tiahrt said.

For good reason. Tiahrt has spent at least 45 days in Johnson County this year, according to his campaign. Moran, who has relatives in the county, has racked up 85 visits, with dozens more in 2008.

“Johnson County has become a second home,” Moran said.

The candidates have been to picnics and barbecues, fundraising galas, dinners, churches, civic clubs, factories, parades and soccer matches.

“Whether Nall is east or west of Metcalf, I know that stuff now,” Tiahrt said.

With nearly 164,000 registered Republicans, Johnson County has 22 percent of the statewide GOP total and easily contains more Republicans than any other county. The second-highest number of Republicans is in Sedgwick County, with 103,559, many of them in Wichita. Then the number drops sharply to nearly 42,000 in Shawnee County, home of the capital, Topeka.

In other words, a candidate can meet a lot of Republicans quickly in Johnson County.

“You go where the ducks are,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. “The ducks are at about 135th and I-35.”

Former Kansas Senate president Dick Bond, an Overland Park Republican, said the outcome in Johnson County will be critical in determining Kansas’ next senator, who will succeed Sam Brownback, a candidate for governor.

“Johnson County will determine the results,” Bond said.

The candidates recognize that, too.

Another reason for Moran’s frequent visits is that he often flies in and out of Kansas City on his way to Washington each week. Moran lived in Merriam for a couple of years after graduating from the University of Kansas School of Law.

“Johnson County is not an unusual place for me,” Moran said.

Tiahrt acknowledged that he’s playing “catch-up.” In mid-July, Moran announced endorsements from seven Johnson County mayors, including Overland Park’s Carl Gerlach and Leawood’s Peggy Dunn.

He has also outpaced Tiahrt in Johnson County campaign donations, picking up about $91,000 from 115 donors so far in 2009, compared with Tiahrt’s 71 donations totaling about $56,000.

Moran’s campaign reported $3.5 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, to Tiahrt’s $1.4 million.

Moran also leads in early statewide polling, including a better than 2-to-1 lead in northeast Kansas, an area that includes Johnson County, according to the latest poll from SurveyUSA.

But the poll also showed that 45 percent of northeast Kansans were undecided.

Read the full story at KansasCity.com