The Race Comes to Kansas

The race for the Republican presidential nomination has come to Kansas, where Saturday’s caucus will actually have an effect on the race for the first time in memory, but thus far you’d hardly notice.

Except for a couple of robo-calls from the Rick Santorum campaign, some e-mailed announcements of a pair of pre-caucus events, and the incessant Newt Gingrich ads that air nationally on the talk radio shows, there are few reminders that a caucus is about to occur. The only campaign yard sign we’ve spotted here in Wichita is the black-and-red Ron Paul number planted in a lawn down the street, and that’s been there for a couple of years now. The local paper and television stations have devoted a few stories to the caucus, but the success of the Wichita State basketball team has been getting much more attention. Even among our most politically-minded friends and acquaintances, the caucus has not been a frequent topic of conversation.

Giddy Democrats will point to this apparent lack of interest as proof that Republicans are unenthused about their candidates, and they’ll be right to some extent, but count on them to overstate the case. The state’s complicated, time-consuming, and excruciatingly boring caucus system deliberately discourages the participation of the casual voter, and Kansas Republicans just aren’t a very excitable lot.

Nor have the candidates made much of an effort to whip up enthusiasm, and for good reasons. Kansas has only 40 delegates at stake, and the winner won’t necessarily take all of them, so it doesn’t make sense for a candidate to spend large amounts of time or money here. Rick Santorum recently paid a visit to Lenexa, one of the endless sprawl of Kansas City suburbs, and he and Newt Gingrich are scheduled to make other appearances in the state, but that’s been the extent of the campaigning.

National frontrunner Mitt Romney has chosen to wage his campaign elsewhere, and is smart to do so. Most of the people willing to endure the rigors of a Kansas caucus are members of the state’s fervent and well-organized anti-abortion movement, and the state usually chooses the candidate that most outspokenly shares their views. The last time around Kansas went for Mike Huckabee, months after John McCain had wrapped up the nomination, and this year Santorum is the obvious favorite. Romney can expect to carry the state if he does get the party’s nod, so there’s no reason to fight a losing battle here.

The prevailing mood here is starkly different from four years ago, when the Republicans trudged through bitterly cold to cast a desultory vote against their party’s presumptive nominee, while the Democrats went to vote for either America’s First Black President or America’s First Woman President with an almost religious passion. This year we expect the Republicans will probably genuinely like the man the vote for, won’t harbor the same dislike of the others that they had for John McCain, and will wind up voting for whomever gets the nomination. They won’t match the enthusiasm of the Democrats in ’08, but they won’t end up looking so damn gullible, either.

— Bud Norman

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