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The Health Care Fight Turns Literal

President Donald Trump’s extended foreign tour went smoothly on Wednesday, but back in the states his party’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare had a bumpier ride. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report that the bill recently passed by the House of Representatives would result in 23 million fewer Americans having health insurance, a Fox News poll confirmed all the other polls showing that the bill was already unpopular with the public, and the Republican candidate in today’s special congressional election in Montana apparently wound up taking his frustrations out by body-slamming a reporter.
The body-slamming got the most media attention, of course, but even those stories required some mention of the CBO score and the bad polls to provide the context. Although the state-wide district has been an easy win for the Republican the past 20 years, this is not at all a usual year and the race has been close enough to draw reporters from all sorts of places in anticipation of an upset with national implications. Democratic candidate Ron Quist, a 69-year-old singing cowboy with a troubled financial history he attributes to some pesky health expenses, has lately tightened the race by stressing his opposition to that unpopular House bill. Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey transplant who got rich with a software company, has been steadfastly opposed to the unpopular Obamacare law but noticeably less steadfast about where he stands on that even more unpopular House bill.
Which helps some to explain what happened when a reporter from the unabashedly-liberal-even-by-British-standards The Guardian newspaper walked to up to Gianforte wielding a tape recorder microphone and asking about that brand new CBO score. At that point, so far as we can tell from the reporter’s audio recording and the eyewitness testimony of several other journalists and Gianforte’s own self-serving account, Gianforte declined to answer, the reporter persisted, Pianoforte continued to declined, the reporter continued to persist. After a few moments of this, it seems, Gianforte grabbed the reporter’s neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground, then began punching.
On the audio recording Gianforte is clearly heard at that point shouting “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with The Guardian?” The reporter admitted he was from The Guardian and complained that his glasses had been broken, Gianforte reiterated his demand that he get out, and the reporter stated his intention to call the local police. As a criminal matter it’s now in the hands of the local authorities, so we’ll not comment on that, but as a political matter we will say that it’s not the kind of publicity a candidate hopes for on election eve in a tight race.
In a state that is red on both the electoral map and the back of the neck it might be worth trying to blame it all on that liberal media, especially when it’s some pesky Brit from a left-by-British-standards rag such as The Guardian, but in this case the eyewitnesses to the events were a crew from Fox News, which is not known for its liberal bias, and confirmed every detail of the reporter and his audiotape’s account what happened. There are bound to be a few Republicans in Montana who will relish a smart-alecky reporter from that far back east getting his rightful comeuppance, but there are bound to be even more Montana Republicans who are embarrassed by it.
Montana’s a reliably red state, though, and this might yet prove another tantalizingly close call for the Democrats in this unusual year. They do things different up in Montana, such as holding special elections on a Thursday, instead of Tuesday as God intended, and given the long rides into town that most Montanans have there are some unusually lenient early voting laws. An estimated 62 percent of the votes that will be cast in a typically low-turnout special election have already been made, before that CBO score or Pianoforte’s alleged body slammed hit the news, and unless they’re paying attention to their local news or the international internet buzz the rest might go to the polls without having heard about it. Some of those who do might decide to reluctantly vote for Gianforte anyway, and they’ve probably been following the race closer than we have.
Even if the Republicans eke out another unusually close win in a reliably red district, though, they should remain calmly nervous. They won the special election here in our Kansas Fourth District by seven points, but that’s a jarring drop from the customary 30-point-plus blowouts of recent decades, and at this point the really big special election this June in that mostly-white-and-educated-and-upper-income Georgia district in suburban Atlanta that used to elect Newt Gingrich the Democrat is ahead in all the polls on his anti-hour bill platform. Given that all these districts went Republican by comfortable margins just last November, Republicans must ask themselves what’s happened since then.
The special election in Kansas was held because Rep. Mike Pompeo was tabbed as Central Intelligence Agency director, in Montana it was because Rep. Ryan Zinke was promoted to Secretary of Interior, and that Georgia seat’s open because Rep. Tom Price was promoted to Secretary of Health and Human Services, so in each case the Grand Old Party was running candidates with lesser credentials. All politics really is local, too, and we’ll freely admit we’re not au courant on what’s going on in rural Montana and suburban Atlanta. Still, the trend seems to be that the Democrats hate Trump more than the Republicans love him, and that the repeal-and-replace bill the House passed is even more unpopular than Obamacare, which takes some doing.
Obamacare is still as bad as people thought it was just last November, though, and there’s a strong case to be made for that House bill, but for now the Republican party seems unlikely to make it. Both the bill and the president’s widely damned proposed budget cut to Medicare and other governments are necessary to forestall the bankruptcy of those programs, which will prove far more painful, but until then that’s a hard argument to make. On the campaign trail Trump promised coverage for everyone at government expense, then promised that it would all be cheaper and better for everyone and that he’d never touch Medicare, and he rebuked the Republicans in the House who only promised to do what had to be done, so it will be interesting to see what he has to say about it when he gets home from that foreign trip.
He’ll no doubt bash the press, which usually plays well with that plurality of his supporters, but we’d advise him not to do it literally. In a race with national implications, that doesn’t play well.

— Bud Norman

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Another Trip to a Republican Primary

At some point today we’ll stroll a few blocks over to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran Church here in the fashionable Riverside neighborhood of Wichita and cast our vote in the Republican primary, mostly because we always vote on an Election Day. This year there isn’t much reason other than ingrained habit for doing so, except for a certain old-fashioned sense of civic duty and a self-interested point of pride to keep a 38-year perfect attendance streak intact.

There’s a hotly contested and highly intriguing primary race going on just west of the county line in the huge but rural and sparsely populated First Congressional District, but here in the smaller but mostly urban and more densely populated Fourth District our very acceptable Republican Congressman is running unopposed. Across town an old buddy of ours who is a notoriously stingy bare-bones government right-winger of a County Commissioner is in a too-close-to-call race against a challenger who promises to be just slightly less stingy and a bit more generous to the locally beloved Sedgwick County Zoo and more amenable to accepting federal dollars for whatever crazy schemes the feds are offering, but that crosses jurisdictional lines so there’s nothing we can do about it, and our own district’s even more notoriously stingy bare-bones government right winger of County Commissioner isn’t up for re-election in this staggered year. We’ve been so busy brooding about that godawful presidential election to find out if any Republicans are even bothering to run for our state house seat, but in any case we live in such an anomalously hip part of this otherwise reliably Republican town that it is still sprouting “Bernie 2016” yard signs all over the place and will surely wind up once again with the crazy-assed tax-and-spend nanny-state liberal Democrat who also happens to be an old buddy of ours. Kansas chooses its governor in off years, the more-or-less acceptable Republican Senator who happens to be up for re-election this time around is facing only token opposition from one of those no-name and no-money cranks who always shows up on the ballot, and the only voting we’ll do with any gusto is against that Republican district court judge who was ordered to undergo some sort of “sensitivity training” after confessing to a long history of sexual harassment.

Still, the privilege of participating in the primary process is enough, for now, to keep us officially registered as members of the Republican Party. George Will and Jay Nordlinger and other conservative writers we have long admired have recently penned their reasons for disassociating themselves from the party that nominated Donald J. Trump as its standard-bearer, and we can’t find fault with any of it, but none of them live in a state such as Kansas where the Republican Party still means something and just what it means is still very much up for vote.
That hotly contested congressional race over in the First District is a highly intriguing example of the Republican internecine warfare, and because the First District gets its talk radio and other media advertising from here in the urbanized Fourth we’ve been able to follow all the mud-slinging. Regular viewers of the as-the-GOP-turns soap opera know there’s been a trend in the past eight years or so for hell-bent hard-core conservative “tea party” types to challenge the squishy moderate “establishment” types in primaries, which explains how Tim Huelskamp became the incumbent Congressman in the same First District that had previously produced such stereotypically squishy moderate “establishment” Senators as Bob Dole and Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. Huelskamp has proved so hell-bent and hard -core that he got kicked off the agriculture committee and voted against the pork-laden Farm Bill that his challenged was backed by theĀ Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, which can hardly be considered special interests in the First District, but Huelskamp had the backing of the Wichita-based Koch Brothers, which is as deep-pocketed and just as dear to our Kansas hearts, and contributions were also coming from all sorts of donors invested in such Republican squabbles, and all the national talk radio hosts were weighing in, and it wound up a mud-slinging fest with both candidates looking bad. After the initial Marshall argument that Huelskamp was too much an anti-establishmentarian bomb-thrower to get along the challenger wound up going with the theme that Huelskamp was a “career politician” dubbed “Washing-Tim,” which is so utterly ridiculous that we’re now rooting from across the county line for Huelskamp.
We’re rooting for our slightly more stingy bare-bones government right winger of a County Commissioner, too, but we will accept whatever verdict the Republicans in that part of town might render.

We’ll also happily cast a pointless vote for the unopposed Rep. Mike Pompeo here in the Fourth District, as he’s been just as conservative as Huelskamp or any other hell-bent type but has done so with the kind of tactful grace that has actually won him some plum assignments from the party bosses and good ink from the national press and a rising star status in the party. While we’re at it we’ll vote for that squishy establishment Senator running against the no-name and no-money kook who always shows up on the ballot, and figure we could do a lot worse. All the other Republicans down-ballot will get our support, too, and with similar sorts of holding majorities in state houses and occupying governor’s mansions and holding County Commission seats across a wide if sparsely populated swathe of this nation we’ll continue to cast our primary votes and hold out some hope for the Republican Party.

— Bud Norman

A Swell Party in Kansas

Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District threw a swell party Tuesday night. The event was held at the fashionably old-fashioned Candle Club over on the east side, where a private club status left over from the pre-liquor-by-the-drink days ordinarily allows for smoking and enhances a slightly ’60s-era Vegas atmosphere enhanced by painted portraits of all the prominent Rat Pack members, although it was more brightly lit and smoke-free than usual and a portrait of Pompeo had been added to the pantheon of Frank, Dean, and Sammy, and the free food was quite delicious and so was the free beer that a waitress friend of ours provided. Some old friends were in attendance, including a couple of the other waitresses and the newspaper reporter and photographer who were there on the job, and the convivial atmosphere was further enlivened by the numbers scrolling along the bottom of the several big screen televisions that showed Pompeo’s comfortable victory in his contested primary.
Pompeo’s victory pleased us, to the point that we donned one of the oversized “I Like Mike” campaign buttons that were being passed around, and almost all of the numbers that were scrolling across the bottom of those big-screen televisions were heartening. At least here in Kansas, the Republican Party seems in fighting form. The pre-ordained Democratic candidates will head into the general election unsullied by any of the mud that was slung in the Republican primary races, almost all of which were hotly contested, but they’ll face a Republican slate that has been distilled to its conservative essence and is ready to make its convincing case to a Republican state that is hopping mad about Democratic policies.
All the national media attention will be paid to the Senate race, where entrenched establishment incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts survived a challenge from one of those under-funded amateur “tea party” insurgents, but even that surprisingly close call demonstrates the appropriately angry mood of the state’s Republicans. After 47 years of representing Kansas in Washington Roberts won less than 50 percent of his party’s vote, and if not for a couple of crank candidates who split the anti-incumbent vote with Dr. Milton Wolf, a Kansas City-area radiologist best known for posting his patients’ x-rays on his Facebook page with sarcastic comments, the upset would have been the national political story of the day. We expect that a duly chastened Roberts will campaign on the full-throated conservatism that he’s shrewdly advocated the past few years, and that even the disappointed Republicans will prefer him to the Democratic alternative.
Some national attention will also be paid to a couple of the state’s Congressional races, where the usual storyline was inverted and incumbents were the radical “tea party” insurgent types while the challengers were more establishmentarian. Here in the Fourth District, to which we mistakenly included Hutchinson in a previous post, an error due to re-districting that was politely pointed out to us by a well-informed friend at the Candle Club, Pompeo and his principled opposition to pork barrel spending and publicly funded but privately profitable economic schemes was challenged by his predecessor, Todd Tiahrt, who promised to bring home the bacon the way he did back in the good old days George W. Bush’s spending spree. Tiahrt’s pitch included promises aplenty about reviving Wichita’s beleaguered airplane industry, but it’s nice to note that Pompeo’s past success as an aviation entrepreneur and his advocacy of de-regulation and lower taxes proved more persuasive to a solid majority of the district’s Republicans.
Over in the First District, which covers that great big empty space west of Wichita all the way to the Colorado border and then snakes northeast all way to to the edge of Topeka, and which we feel obligated to add also includes the very fine town of Hutchinson, an even more radical “tea party” insurgent type survived a challenge from an even more establishment-minded challenger. Rep. Tim Huelskamp became a talk radio sensation and a national hero to the radical insurgent “tea party” types with his denunciations of the Republican House leadership’s timidity in the government shutdown and other efforts to rebuff President Barack Obama, but the House leadership responded by stripping him of his seat on the Agriculture Committee and thus provided an opening to farmer and former teacher Alan LaPolice, who promised a more polite sort of politics. Huelskamp’s stubbornness on the obligatory Farm Bill, which the Democrats always turn into a welfare bill, as well as his admirable opposition to the ethanol subsidies that enrich many western Kansas farmers, made for a very competitive race. That the First District preferred the more impolite and principled candidate makes us all the more eager to take another drive through that beautifully empty space west of Wichita.
There will also be some gleeful speculation by the national media about the primary victory of Gov. Sam Brownback, who won his party’s nomination but lost nearly a fourth of its votes to a little-known and under-funded challenger. Democrats everywhere, but especially here, hate Brownback with the sort of red-hot passion once reserved for the likes of Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, so they’ll no doubt predict an upset in the general election, but we think they misread the result. When we cast our votes over at the local Gloria Dei Lutheran Church we ran into an old friend we know to be stark raving liberal, and when we expressed our surprise that she had bothered to show up for the uncontested Democratic races she said that she had switched parties in time to vote to the more “moderate” Republicans, and when we headed home we found a Facebook posting by another Democratic friend gloating how he had switched in order to cast a vote against the hated Brownback, and given the lack of any reason to vote in the Democratic primary we suspect that many others like them contributed to the relatively close count. Brownback will need a good campaign to win, but he knows how to do that and the pre-ordained liberal Democrat from the college town of Lawrence doesn’t look all that intimidating.
We left what turned out to be Pompeo’s victory party before the big speech, as the National Baseball Congress’ annual semi-pro world championship tournament over at the westside’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium beckoned, but since it was almost on the way we stopped at Kirby’s Beer Store to check on the numbers scrolling at the bottom of the bar’s small television. Kirby’s is a hipster bar rife with Democrats, and one of our favorites, a delightfully dissolute lawyer whose professional fortunes are tied to the party, was watching with dismay. He was surprised by Pompeo’s victory, due to his outdated belief that Tiahrt’s popularity with the local anti-abortion activists would carry the day, and even expressed amazement that nationally-known anti-illegal-immigration stalwart Kris Kobach had cruised to re-nomination as Secretary of State, even though the voter identification laws that he championed are hugely popular here and everywhere else. He expressed the predictable optimism about knocking off Brownback, although he sounded somewhat hesitant, and admitted that Roberts and the rest were likely to cruise to re-election. He also said he hadn’t dared to switch parties to vote in the primary, if only for professional reasons, and we thanked him heartily and promised to forever return the favor.
The national media will pay no mind whatsoever to Sedgwick County’s Fourth District Commission race, but forgive our local rooting interest and allow us to note that Richard Ranzau survived a well-funded challenge from oh-so-moderate State Sen. Carolyn McGinn. Ranzau is locally notorious for voting against any of those Chamber of Commerce-inspired “eco deco” deals that promise jobs and prosperity and a chicken in every pot, even when the feds are picking up the tab, and we’re delighted that a slim majority of our neighboring Republicans have his back. He’ll face a tough race in the general election against the Democrats’ pre-ordained Melody McCray-Miller, the heiress to a local black political dynasty that has the undying loyalty of a large slice of the districts as well as a winning personality that makes her formidable in the paler portions of the district, but we also like his chances in November. There’s no telling what the rest of the country is thinking, but here in the county district and the congressional district and the state at large the Republican party seems more or less on the right track.

— Bud Norman

What’s the Matter With Kansas Democrats?

One of those internecine Republican primary challenges is happening right here in Kansas’ fourth congressional district, but what little national attention it has received is because it is so atypical. Instead of a tri-corner hat-wearing tea party amateur challenging a squishy moderate incumbent, which is the modern media’s preferred matchup, this race has a second-term incumbent with impeccable conservative credentials being challenged by a former longtime congressman promising a return to the good old George W. Bush-era days of earmarking porkbarrel spending for the district.
There’s plenty to say about this peculiar political tactic, and at some point before the August primary we’ll get around to saying it, but at this point we’re most intrigued by the widely varied perceptions of the race we’ve been hearing. Almost all of our Republican friends expect an easy win by Mike Pompeo, the incumbent with the impeccable conservative credentials, while almost all of our Democrat friends are confidently predicting a victory by Todd Tiahrt, the former congressman promising to once again bring home the federal bacon.
The Democratic prognosticators don’t expect that any Republicans in these parts share their enthusiasm for porkbarrel spending, but instead expect Tiahrt to win because they well remember how very popular he was the anti-abortion forces in the district. Way back in ’94 Tiahrt knocked off a more-or-less moderate Democrat who had held the seat for 18 years by appealing to the union dues-paying machinists in the local airplane plants and the would-be sophisticates in the white collar jobs as well as wooing enough of the farm vote to complete a coalition, and Tiahrt did it with a lot of help from the religious right activists who were singing “Oh, What a Mighty God” at the election night victory party. The scene scared the bejeezus out of the local Democrats, who continued to attribute Tiahrt’s electoral success solely to the religious right even as his margins of victory swelled with voters who found that he was a more-or-less moderate sort of Republican who brought home the bacon and was predictably unable to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
We try to explain to our Democrat friends that the anti-abortion movement is not a cult of personality that blindly follows any politician, and note that Pompeo’s voting record on abortion issues has been just as consistent and ineffectual, but they won’t believe it. We also try to tell them that while social issues such as abortion are still of importance to Republicans they are lately less important to the average primary voter than economic matters such as the outrageous national debt that Tiahrt wants to increase, but this is usually dismissed as crazy talk.
Kansas Democrats remain enamored of the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” thesis that Thomas Frank cooked up, which holds that no one really believes that capitalism and freedom nonsense except for the Koch brothers and a few other well-heeled plutocrats who have been hoodwinked the proletarian rubes into voting against their economic self-interests with a bunch of religious hooey. We note that conservative media ranging from National Review to the Rush Limbaugh show rarely mention the social issues these days, and then only because their liberal counterparts have forced the discussion with efforts to subsidize contraception and abortion or are employing McCarthyite tactics against religious dissenters, but of course they never pay heed to these voices and prefer to assume that it’s a non-stop Billy Sunday sermon. They can’t imagine any other reason that the district’s voters have consistently rejected the Democrats’ kindly offer to redistribute some wealth this way.
The past six years of stubborn unemployment and underemployment and falling wages and skyrocketing debt and even increased income inequality have done nothing to shake this faith, which could be described as religious if you really wanted to irk a local Democrat. Even those union dues-paying machinists at the airplane plants are finding it hard to see how it’s in their economic interests to support a president who routinely rails against “corporate jets,” and the thousands of locals employed by the much-hated Koch brothers have the same qualms, but the Democratic party that seeks their votes continue to regard their views as a result of some sort of snake-handling ritual. They might be right about the Republican primary, although we’re more inclined to the views of our Republican friends, but the Democrats are likely to find themselves out of power around here for at least another decade if they continue to believe in appealing myths.

— Bud Norman