Commentary: Kansas GOP offering a lesson in campaign extremes

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

Yikes. It's getting hot in the heartland.

I speak not of the scorching afternoons and oppressive evenings. This is July, after all. It's the political temperatures that are setting new records.

In Kansas, the GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat has degenerated into a mud-wrestling spectacle as Congressmen Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran claw for the spot closest to the extremist fringe.

Tiahrt, the congressman from Wichita, blasts Moran for voting for measures that could be interpreted as tax increases. Moran, who represents western Kansas, hammers at Tiahrt for once showing some sense on immigration issues.

In a sign of how low this race will go, the candidates have engaged in a demeaning though comical tug of war for the endorsement of Tom Tancredo, the former Congressman from Colorado who has suggested that President Obama should be "sent back" to Kenya, and favors the wholesale deportation of illegal immigrants.

Tancredo first went with Moran, but this week switched allegiances. He said Moran and his campaign had fed him "untrue and misleading" information.

Clearly, Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment — Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican — is out the window in Kansas.

But this is not Reagan's Republican Party. Nor is it the party of Bob Dole, Nancy Landon Kassebaum or other Kansans who represented their state with distinction.

This is a Republican party that seems intent on sending an ideologue to represent Kansans in what is meant to be the nation's greatest deliberative body.

It may be — heaven forbid — the party of Kris Kobach.

Kobach, who is running for Kansas secretary of state, is a lock for the coveted Tancredo endorsement. He makes a living and a name for himself by offering legal advice to states and municipalities that seek to handle the problem of illegal immigration with especially punitive measures.

Kobach allowed the finances of the Kansas Republican Party to fall into a shambles when he recently served a stint as party chairman — not exactly stellar credentials for a secretary of state candidate.

But that didn't faze the standing-room-only crowd that packed the conference center at the Ritz Charles in Overland Park last Tuesday night.

Kobach is also a law professor, and his lecture on the federal government’s failure to rid the nation of illegal immigrants went over very well.

The crowd — almost entirely white and mostly 45 and up — was even more enthusiastic about an appearance by Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. Among other things, Arpaio is known for "crime suppression sweeps" aimed at finding illegal immigrants, and forcing inmates in his jail to wear pink underwear.

Meanwhile, meeting in Kansas City for its annual convention this week, the NAACP provoked an outpouring of wrath by passing a resolution decrying racism within the tea party movement.

The civil rights organization is well within its rights to take note of the ugliness that has manifested itself at some rallies.

But rallies are amorphous events; it's impossible to say whether the person holding a sign depicting President Obama as an African witch doctor or overheard making a racist remark is a tea party supporter or an outlier. The NAACP's mistake wasn't decrying racism that has reared up in political protests, but in calling out the tea party by name.

There is real angst in the land about missing jobs, rising deficits and a demographic landscape that is shifting under people's feet. You heard a lot of talk at the Kobach-Arpaio rally about "getting our country back."

But whose country? The country of Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt, who have positioned themselves as too extreme to be effective at governing? The country of Kris Kobach, who fights for the right of states and cities to engage in racial profiling?

Say it isn't so. The heat is radiating from the political extremes. It makes one long for that cooler space in the center.