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