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Special Primary Report: Kansas

By Deborah Kalb
CQ Staff Writer

Bob Dole's departure from the Senate to focus on his presidential bid has had a seismic effect on Kansas politics, thrusting the state's congressional races into the national limelight.

Dole's Senate farewell June 11, after 35 years in Congress, was the crowning blow to the seniority of an all-GOP delegation already prepared to lose another senior senator and two senior House members.

Kansas is now in the unusual position of hosting two Senate races in one year: one to fill the remaining two years of Dole's term, and another to replace retiring three-term Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum.

Dole's interim successor, Republican Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm, was sworn in the day he resigned but is guaranteed only a half-year in office.

She faces stiff opposition in the Republican special primary on Tuesday, with the November special election looming in the distance.

Three of the state's four House races are now open-seat contests. Jan Meyers is retiring, Pat Roberts is seeking Kassebaum's seat and freshman Sam Brownback is running against Frahm for Dole's seat. Only freshman Todd Tiahrt, who represents the Wichita-based 4th District, is hoping to keep his current job once the 105th Congress rolls around, and he faces a determined Democratic challenge this year.

Republicans hope that with native son Dole atop the ticket, their congressional candidates will all win, maintaining their current shutout of Democrats in the state's six-member delegation.

Kansas is a traditionally Republican state. In the 1992 presidential contest, George Bush won the state with 39 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton's 34 percent and independent candidate Ross Perot's 27 percent.

But Democrats note that they held two of the House seats before the 1994 election.

They are hoping to rebound from their dismal showing that year and recapture at least one seat amid the state's political turmoil.

One factor that might work to Republicans' disadvantage is that their state party is sharply split between social conservatives who oppose abortion rights and relative moderates who support at least some abortion rights. This division is visible in at least three hard-fought primaries in the state this year.


Dole seat

Dole had been expected at some point to give up his post as majority leader to concentrate on his campaign as the expected Republican presidential nominee. But his announcement May 15 that he would leave the Senate altogether shocked many in Kansas.

It took almost no time for the Republican special primary contest to take shape. Brownback, an ambitious conservative in his first term representing the Topeka-based 2nd District, jumped right in. And Republican Gov. Bill Graves quickly appointed Frahm, an ally from the party's more moderate wing, as Dole's interim successor.

The contest is shaping up as a showdown between the state GOP's conservative-activist and traditional Republican wings, though both candidates are shirking ideological labels. Frahm calls herself a conservative, though she is seen as having more moderate views on some social issues; Brownback has said he is picking up some support from party traditionalists as well as movement conservatives.

Geography is also at issue in the race. Traditionally, Kansas has had one senator from the western part of the state and one from the eastern part. But Roberts, the front-runner for the Kassebaum seat, is a westerner, as is Frahm -- a point which Brownback and others have noted.

Frahm, who was state Senate majority leader before becoming lieutenant governor, has focused on education and agricultural issues. Brownback, who previously served as Kansas secretary of agriculture, has been known in the House as a leader among GOP freshmen in their effort to reduce the size of the federal government. He is stressing his support of tax cuts and term limits in the campaign.

Brownback got a lift with the passing of the special June 24 filing deadline for this contest. Two other conservative Republicans who considered the race -- former state Sen. Eric Yost and real estate executive Nestor Weigand -- opted not to run. Only a lesser-known candidate, accountant Christina Campbell-Cline, filed to join Frahm and Brownback on the primary ballot.

Democrats also face a tough primary fight and are hoping to emerge with a strong candidate to take on the Republican winner.

Both of the leading Democratic candidates bear familiar names. Former Gov. Joan Finney, who was in office from 1991 to 1995, is focusing on her previous experience in financial management, health issues and job creation. She previously served five terms as state treasurer.

Stockbroker Jill Docking is carrying on the tradition of a popular Kansas political family. Her husband, Thomas R. Docking, served as Kansas' lieutenant governor, and his father and grandfather were both Kansas governors.

Kassebaum seat

The race for Kassebaum's seat has been overshadowed since May by the fight for Dole's seat. In part, this is because veteran Rep. Roberts is regarded as the favorite to win the seat over Democratic state Treasurer Sally Thompson.

Roberts is the strong front-runner in a primary with three lesser-known opponents: Richard L. Cooley, a teacher of government; Boeing industrial engineer Thomas L. Oyler; and accountant Tom Little. Thompson faces no primary opposition.

Republicans are assuming that with the state's GOP edge, Roberts can keep the seat in GOP hands, while Democrats are hoping that Kansas voters' affinity for women candidates will help Thompson.

GOP officials have believed all along that Roberts, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, was their strongest candidate to retain the seat. A Dole ally who has support from both wings of the Kansas GOP, Roberts initially disappointed party recruiters last November by announcing he would not run for the open seat, but he changed his mind in January.

Roberts has represented the rural, western 1st District -- once represented by Dole -- for eight terms. As Agriculture chairman this year, he helped shepherd a sweeping overhaul of the nation's farm legislation through Congress.

But Thompson has been painting Roberts as a Washington insider who is not in touch with Kansas.

Among the issues on which Thompson is focusing are educational opportunities and job training. She takes a somewhat conservative approach on fiscal issues, supporting a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. But she has been endorsed by a number of women's groups, including EMILY's List, which backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

Republicans, meanwhile, are focusing on Thompson's controversial handling in 1994 of funds from a state pool for municipal programs. Thompson's campaign has defended the way she managed the pool, saying that state-invested funds have prospered overall.


1st District -- Rural West: Salina; Hutchinson; Dodge City

State Senate Majority Leader Jerry Moran, who succeeded Frahm in that position in early 1995, is the front-runner to succeed Roberts in the staunchly Republican 1st.

The 1st, which takes in 66 counties and more than two-thirds of the state's land area, is mainly a farm district.

Moran, who said he would provide similar representation for the 1st to that offered by Roberts, sees himself as able to gain support from both wings of the Republican Party. He is focusing on issues involving agriculture, small business and fiscal responsibility. He faces two little-known primary opponents, Bert Fisher and R. W. Yeager.

The likely Democratic nominee is IBM executive and former Salina Mayor John Divine, who considers himself a moderate. His agenda centers on the budget, agriculture, jobs and education. He is stressing his local government experience, which also includes service on the Salina City Council.

2nd District -- East: Topeka; Leavenworth; Pittsburg

Brownback's jump to the Senate race has cleared the way for a three-way Republican primary with an interesting cast of characters. It is also another battle that reflects the split in the state GOP.

Former Olympic runner Jim Ryun -- a University of Kansas graduate who once held the world mile record -- is running as a conservative, calling for cutting taxes and paying off the national debt. Ryun, who is well-known in Kansas, has worked as a motivational speaker and has been involved in sports camps.

Douglas S. Wright, a former Topeka mayor, is running as a more moderate candidate. An abortion rights supporter, Wright is emphasizing economic issues, public education and crime.

The third candidate is Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose family was involved in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision issued by the Supreme Court in 1954. She also supports abortion rights and hopes for strong support from women voters.

Lawyer John Frieden, who had been gearing up to challenge Brownback, is the likely Democratic nominee. Frieden is not expected to have difficulty raising money. He has been touring the district meeting with voters. Along the way, he has voiced criticism of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and the House Republicans' agenda, differing with them on Medicare, Medicaid and cuts in student loans.

Two-thirds of the district's residents live in or north of Topeka, the state capital, while the remainder includes farmland and the city of Leavenworth, known for its federal penitentiary.

The 2nd's varied makeup creates something of a swing district and gives hope to both parties.

In 1994, Brownback won a commanding 66 percent of the vote in an open-seat contest to replace Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery. Slattery had given up the seat after six terms for an ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

The 2nd split its vote down the middle in the 1992 presidential race, giving Bill Clinton and George Bush each 36 percent of the vote (Bush won by fewer than 500 votes). In 1988, Bush carried the district with 54 percent.

3rd District -- Kansas City region: Overland Park; Lawrence

The 3rd, Kansas' most urbanized district, is the site for yet another open-seat contest. The race to replace retiring six-term Rep. Meyers features a heated GOP primary that once again pits social conservatives against the party's more moderate traditional wing.

This district takes in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo., as well as Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas.

Meyers is supporting Ed Eilert, mayor of the suburban Kansas City town of Overland Park. Like Meyers, Eilert is a moderate on social issues and supports abortion rights.

Eilert's main opponent is state House Majority Leader Vince Snowbarger, a social conservative who opposes abortion rights.

Eilert and Snowbarger have been trading barbs for weeks. In one exchange, Snowbarger accused Eilert of using religious differences for political purposes, after Eilert's campaign paid for a letter urging both Democrats and Republicans to support Eilert in the primary in part because of Snowbarger's high approval rating from the Christian Coalition.

Other Republicans in the race include Greg Schoofs, a former Meyers aide; Richard Warren Rodewald, a Topeka lobbyist and former General Motors engineer who challenged Dole for the 1992 Senate nomination; Bonnie Rahimian, a homemaker and former college teacher; and Anne B. Lyddon.

The Democrats are likely to re-nominate Judy Hancock, an attorney who lost to Meyers in 1994. Hancock is criticizing the Republican Congress as too radical and is focusing on issues that include education, the minimum wage and health care.

Hancock is expected to prevail in a primary against Preston L. Conner, president of an association of part-time and temporary workers. He is running on a platform of workers' issues.

4th District -- South Central: Wichita

The 4th District is Kansas' only non-open seat battle this year. If Tiahrt wins a second term, he would be the senior Kansan in the House.

Tiahrt was one of the House campaign's "giant-killers" in 1994, upsetting veteran Democrat Dan Glickman. Tiahrt won the two-man race with 53 percent of the vote.

Now Tiahrt is the Democrats' target. He faces a tough challenge in November from the likely Democratic nominee, former U.S. Attorney Randy Rathbun. Organized labor is strongly supporting the Democrats' effort to unseat Tiahrt.

Among the staunchly conservative incumbent's top issues are a balanced budget, term limits, welfare reform and a $500-per-child tax credit.

Rathbun, who was involved in investigating the Oklahoma City bombing case, is talking about crime issues in his campaign. His other issues include welfare reform, education and protection of senior citizens. He is also trying to link Tiahrt to Gingrich.

Although Glickman served nine terms before his defeat, the district has gone Republican in recent presidential elections. George Bush won the 4th with 40 percent of the vote in 1992 and 57 percent in 1988.

Copyright © 1996, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.

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