Tiahrt Returns for a Kansas Republican Primary Challenge

The incumbent primary challenges are far from over. Yesterday afternoon, in a move that had been discussed for some time but had not crystallized until the last few days, former Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) announced his intent to challenge two-term Congressman Mike Pompeo (R), the man who succeeded him in 2011. Tiahrt left his Wichita-anchored US House seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in the 2010 election (lost to then-Rep. Jerry Moran in the GOP primary, 45-50 percent).

In his announcement address before a room full of supporters in Wichita, Tiahrt laid out his differences with the incumbent, and even the House Republican leadership. He expressed disappointment with what he termed as the way Pompeo and the leadership are giving away too much in the national ideological fight. He criticized Pompeo for not fighting hard enough over losing local jobs to other states and countries and cited specific examples, particularly in the local aviation industry.

Tiahrt said Pompeo’s position pushing American military involvement in Syria, his “funding” of Obamacare, and approval of the NSA listening to Americans’ private conversations and reading emails delineate a clear area of disagreement between the two. Finally, he said Congress had failed in its oversight efforts of the Veterans Administration and provides one more indication that current officeholders have lost touch with their constituencies.

The former congressman starts this campaign in a weakened position. Though his name identification will be as good as, or better than, Pompeo’s, he admittedly begins this race with less than $1,000 to spend. Conversely, the incumbent reported $2.112 million cash on hand in his March 31 campaign financial disclosure filing. Furthermore, can Tiahrt quickly re-start his political operation and have it immediately fire on all cylinders for what is now a two month campaign? Even this becomes a tall order.

Rumors persist, however, that Tiahrt ally Wink Hartman, a major oil businessman, restauranteur, and race team owner, will lead an independent expenditure effort against Pompeo. In 2010, Hartman placed third in the open Republican congressional primary, close behind second place finisher Jean Schodorf, but almost 16 percentage points behind Pompeo. Hartman and Pompeo continue to have strained relations. Tiahrt will likely need such outside backing to enter a competitive realm.

There is no question that Tiahrt faces an uphill climb in his challenge campaign, but he has won tough races before. Whether the differences he perceives between himself and Pompeo will be seen as major enough among the GOP voting base to remove their own incumbent remains to be determined. Even if they do, will they oust Pompeo in favor of an alternative who served in Washington four times as long? Tiahrt was originally elected to the House in 1994 and won seven subsequent congressional campaigns.

Additionally, considering his attacks upon the party leadership, it is a certainty that Tiahrt would not gain back his Appropriations Committee seat if he successfully returns to the House. Pompeo now serves on the Energy & Commerce Committee, a strong fit for the district.

Since Tiahrt is a former long-term incumbent, he won’t have much success running a challenge based upon dissatisfaction with Washington. Therefore, for him to establish a foothold, he will have to demonstrate clear differences between himself and Rep. Pompeo. The campaign kick-off speech attempted to do just that, so we can expect a campaign of short duration with highly negative overtones. At this late beginning, Pompeo has to be viewed as a clear favorite. The next eight weeks, however, promise to attract a great deal of political attention to southeast Kansas.

The Sunflower State primary is scheduled for Aug. 5.

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