A Kansas Democrat Aims for the Center in Bid to Split GOP
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 1998; Page A03
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. Here among the exquisite emerald lawns and exclusive country clubs, in one of the wealthier Republican counties in the nation, the two major political parties are waging a quiet war for the heart of the American suburb.
The battle for the prospering 3rd Congressional District of Kansas is shaping up as one of the closer races in the country, as a popular Democratic challenger struggles to demonstrate that he's well, just as Republican as the guy next door.
The burden is on former district attorney Dennis Moore to at once align himself with freshman Rep. Vince Snowbarger (R) fiscally, while trying to paint the conservative incumbent as an extremist on social issues. It is a tricky strategy that will no doubt energize Snowbarger's religious right base.
Democrats view this and about 20 contests nationwide as test cases on whether they can capitalize on the deep divisions between Republican moderates and the religious right over issues such as abortion and gun control. And it is also, political observers say, a referendum on whether President Clinton has truly forged a centrist party that can reach down into one of the more Republican states in the Midwest.
"This is a battleground," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. "The Republican House . . . has taken a hard turn to the right, and I do not believe that's reflective of many suburban districts such as this one."
But while Democratic polls show the race to be a dead heat, Republicans argue that Democrats are pursuing a flawed strategy because the public continues to move to the right of center on most issues. "You can't dress up Democrats with liberal baggage in conservative clothing and expect people not to notice," said Mary Crawford, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Republicans further claim that Democratic efforts to run against Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as a symbol of extremism is a worn-out tactic that will not work this year. They point, for example, to Gingrich's reception here this month compared with two years ago. When Gingrich visited the 3rd District in 1996, the Snowbarger campaign raised a modest $30,000. This month, at a high-end dinner, Gingrich helped raise more than $100,000 and the media largely ignored Moore's criticism of Snowbarger's ties to Gingrich.
Democrats actively recruited Moore, 52, a well-known criminal defense lawyer with high name recognition. Significantly, Moore is a proven Democratic vote-getter in Johnson County, the district's largest county, where he was elected district attorney three times. He has also demonstrated an impressive fund-raising ability, initially getting a jump on Snowbarger. As of June 30, Snowbarger had nearly caught up, with $361,562 raised to date to Moore's $394,485.
Still, Moore has an uphill battle in a district that has not elected a Democrat in nearly 40 years and in a state that has no Democrats in its congressional delegation. (Moore has nominal opposition in the Aug. 4 primary from Dan Dana, a little-known employment mediator.) Moore is still developing his message, but like others around the country using a similar strategy, he must figure out how to make his charges of Snowbarger's extremism resonate for voters personally enough to build a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents for a win in November.
He suggests, for one, that Snowbarger is not committed to "personal safety" because he supported a state "carrying concealed weapon" bill when he was in the legislature. Moore also faults Snowbarger for not taking a strong stand on patients' rights a proven hot-button national issue and has unveiled a plan for greater regulatory control over HMOs.
Snowbarger's incumbent strategy is simple: If it's not broken, don't fix it. His voting record on economic matters, he argues, is in sync with a district that cares about lower taxes, less government and rapid growth. This is the smallest, yet richest, district in the state, with a median annual household income of about $35,000. Sixty percent of the adult population attended college. Unemployment in most parts of the district, which includes Kansas City, is under 4 percent, and there is robust growth everywhere you look homes, upscale strip malls, corporate expansion. Sprint is headquartered here, with nearly 10,000 employees, as is a J.C. Penney catalogue center, technology and defense companies, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
In his two years in Congress, Snowbarger, 48, has not made any waves, voting with his party 98 percent of the time. He opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and to save a woman's life, favors a flat income tax, believes Social Security should be gradually overhauled into a government-mandated but privately managed system and opposes a national school voucher system but favors allowing states their own option.
Snowbarger succeeded retiring Rep. Jan Meyers (R), who represented the district for 12 years and was considered a good fit as an abortion rights supporter and pro-business moderate in an area with as many registered independents as Democrats.
Snowbarger concedes that there is a strong moderate GOP and independent base here which may very well be to his left on social issues but he questions whether Moore can "whip them into a frenzy" in these flush times. "When there are no concrete issues and when you have a strong economy, that's a difficult task," he said. "You have to give people a reason to switch."
Political analysts and some voters tend to agree. "History suggests that these Republicans hold their noses and vote Republican even if the candidate is not completely in sync with their beliefs," said Allan Cigler, political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Jeff Holmes, a 37-year-old "house husband," is just the voter Moore is trying to reach: an abortion rights-supporting Republican, whose wife is a local deejay. But Holmes, who voted for Snowbarger in 1996, sees no reason to switch. "He represents my views on where we should be economically less spending, less government, the focus on the individual," said Holmes. "I just don't think his position on [social] issues will affect me."
"The bottom line is that Vince has done a good job for Johnson County," said John Petersen, a politically active lawyer who labels himself a moderate. "The idea is to make sure people are thriving, that they're happy and they will make their own personal choices on these social issues."
Nonetheless, Democratic research indicates that Democrats are attracting an increasing percentage of upper-middle-class female voters in suburban communities, suggesting to them that traditionally moderate Republicans may be ready to split with their party.
Here in Kansas, the swift rise of the religious right in the early '90s so concerned the moderate wing of the party that two organizations the Mainstream Coalition and GOP Club have sprung up to counter the movement. Some of these Republicans, several of whom would not speak on the record, agree that Snowbarger is not the perfect voice for the district but tend to believe he will prevail again despite his narrow 1996 victory with only 50 percent of the vote.
Snowbarger has several factors in his favor. In the absence of a third party candidate here, independent voters tend to trend Republican. In addition, well-funded and well-organized conservative special interests are expected to help Snowbarger.
Snowbarger's strategy will be to tar Moore as a liberal and suggest that as a practicing criminal attorney, he is no longer tough on crime because he is now representing hardened criminals. What privately concerns Moore's supporters is the specter of his religious opponents making an issue of the fact that he is on his third marriage. Snowbarger, son of a Nazarene church official and a schoolteacher, has been married for 26 years and has two grown sons.
Tim Golba, political director of Kansans for Life, is ready to organize upward of 500 volunteers to get out the vote for Snowbarger with yard signs, fliers and through the church network. "We have a strong voice," Golba said.
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