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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

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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