Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010

Kansas' 3rd District: Stephene Moore vs. Kevin Yoder

You don't need polls or political scientists to know that Kansas is a Republican state. No Democrat running for President has carried the state since 1964, and the last Democratic U.S. Senator from Kansas left office in 1939.

So Stephene (pronounced Stephanie) Moore, sporting a D after her name, faces an uphill battle to hold on to the seat in the 3rd Congressional District — a swing district in the Kansas City suburbs — when the incumbent Democrat retires. She will have no coattails to ride on. Republicans are overwhelming favorites to win the governor's mansion in Kansas and an open Senate seat.

The fact that Moore, a nurse by training, is a rookie on the campaign trail makes things even harder for her. Those Democrats who do win in Kansas tend to be sure-footed enough to find the (sometimes mushy) middle ground while quietly relying on the GOP to split into warring factions — religious conservatives vs. libertarian free enterprisers.

But Republican Kevin Yoder seems determined to not let a civil war break out this time. In recent years, while moving swiftly up the political ladder from student-body president at the University of Kansas to chairman of the state's House Appropriations Committee, Yoder has won praise from both wings of his party — Kansans for Life and the National Federation of Independent Business. So much for divide and conquer. In this period of widespread concern about government deficits, Yoder's best credential may be his fresh record as a cost cutter. Last spring, he helped to push a stringent but balanced budget through the legislature.

There's a wild card in the race: Moore is married to the retiring incumbent. That's Representative Dennis Moore, a lanky, laconic six-termer who honed his political skills as district attorney in Johnson County, the wealthiest and most populous Kansas community. The family connection has given Stephene Moore instant name recognition — both positive and negative. The GOP bumper stickers almost wrote themselves: "No Moore."

At a recent forum for the candidates in Wyandotte County, Moore tried to present herself as an outsider who could deliver peace to the squabbling capital. "Nurses can get people to yes," she ventured. Although she acknowledged that she would support such signature Democratic programs as the health care overhaul and cap and trade, Moore struggled to avoid categorical positions on issues like taxes and immigration.

Yoder, by contrast, was relentlessly clear, stating that taxes need to be cut, that "the government has plenty of money" and that current policies are "bankrupting our country." He tied Moore so tightly to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the audience might have thought a tornado had swept them to San Francisco. "People on this podium can preach bipartisanship," he said of his opponent, "but that's not how Nancy Pelosi operates."

This week, Yoder's campaign caught Moore's operation sleeping and launched a website using her unprotected domain name: It's all there, the Yoder strategy in a nutshell: a federal debt ticker accelerating wildly, a video portraying Moore as a "Washington insider" and a calendar tallying the number of days Moore has declined to say whether she would vote for Pelosi as Speaker.

In a Republican-leaning district, part of a rock-ribbed Republican state, that will probably be all that it takes.