The Speaker's Lobby: The Kansas GOP Senate Primary: Wide Right. By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

03 August 2010

With eight seconds to play in Super Bowl XXV, Buffalo Bills placekicker Scott Norwood teed-up to boot what would have been a championship-winning, 47-yard field goal. Seconds later, Norwood's failed kick was forever woven into the fabric of NFL lore as the kick sailed, in the words of play-by-play man Al Michaels, "wide right."

Compared to the way Reps. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) kick, Norwood's failed effort would have been straight down Broadway.

There's an old proverb about primary elections. If you're a Republican, run to the right in the primary and then to the center in the general election.

It's hard to imagine where Tiahrt and Moran would be if they ran any further to the right in today's GOP primary to succeed retiring Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS).

If Tiahrt and Moran played baseball and tried to leg out an infield hit, they'd veer off the first base line, into the grandstands and wind up in a hot dog stand on the mezzanine level.

If they flew from New York to Los Angeles, Tiahrt and Moran would diverge from their flight pattern and land in Edmonton.

I'd love to be a mechanic inspecting the steering columns of their cars. I can't imagine either making many left-hand turns.

Makes you wonder if either of these guys would even bother to campaign in Manhattan, KS, lest someone mistake them for wooing voters in liberal Manhattan, NY.

For months, Tiahrt and Moran have waged political war over who is more conservative. And the year's Republican political trends, an energized tea party movement and disdain for the agenda wielded by the Democratic Congress and President Obama have only bolstered their efforts to capture the conservative mantle in a rare Congressman versus Congressman, internal-party fracas.

The two have burned a collective $5 million to court conservative voters. They've turned what are usually polite politics in the Sunflower State into Bleeding Kansas.

What's interesting is that both are candidates are awfully conservative. In 2009, National Journal ranked Moran as the 367th "most liberal" member of the 435 member House. He was the 64th-most conservative. Tiahrt scored nominally better. National Journal rated Tiahrt as the 377th most-liberal member and the 54th-most conservative.

When it comes to vote scoring, the American Conservative Union (ACU) assessed Tiahrt at voting with them 91 percent of the time. Meantime, Moran fared a little better, earning a 92 percent ACU rating. Both lawmakers drew only a 14 percent tally from the more-liberal AFL-CIO.

In his 1966 gubernatorial bid, President Reagan issued what has come to be known in GOP circles as the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

But that's all out the window in the Tiahrt-Moran contest.

Tiahrt's standard campaign method is to cast aspersions his opponent's voting record.

"He's a moderate and I'm a conservative," Tiahrt chimed "He's a liberal compromiser."

Tiahrt also suggested that Moran often voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Traditionally, the Speaker of the House rarely casts votes on the House floor.

Still Tiahrt stands by his conservative mantle.

"I was conservative when conservative wasn't cool," Tiahrt said. "Moran is an election year conversion."

Meantime, Moran dismissed suggestions that he was trying to highlight voting differences between him and Tiahrt to sway Republican voters.

"I don't have to out-conservative anybody. I'm happy to sit on my voting record," Moran said.

Moran took a swipe at his opponent, noting that he's a veteran member of the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that determines how the government spends its money.

"I would say he's one of the top-ten most-prolific spenders when it comes to earmarks," Moran said.

Often in politics, candidates and lawmakers quibble but are at least cordial after hours. The same can't be said for Tiahrt and Moran.

"I don't know if friends is the word," Moran said of Tiahrt. "But we work side by side."

Tiahrt says he asks Moran about his ill mother. But he's not sure that's a welcome entreaty.

"I sure hope he says hi to me when I pass him in the hallway," said Tiahrt. "But usually he looks the other way."

Regardless who wins tonight, the Tiahrt-Moran battle is emblematic of the electoral dynamic for Republicans face this year. It was largely believed that conservative voters stayed home in 2008 as the party nominated the more-moderate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to its presidential nominee. But how the right is excited. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) just formed the Congressional Tea Party Caucus. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R) is a darling of the conservative movement. Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (R) is an emerging star. In Washington, the efforts of Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) tie the Senate in knots, much to the applause of the right. And the most-recent tête-à-tête between Moran and Tiahrt is just the latest salvo in battles this year with one candidate trying to prove they are more conservative than the next. Look at what unfolded earlier this spring in Utah when veteran Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) lost his party's nomination after serving in the Senate since 1992.

This is polarization politics. And coalitions like the tea party and other conservative groups are looking to bind candidates with "litmus tests" on issues ranging from immigration to health care to abortion to "prove" whether they measure up.

This is partly why the Kansas primary race is fraught with hyperbole when the voting records of both candidates fall within a stone's throw of one another.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these tactics will be successful in the general election. General elections are usually about courting a broader swath of people. Granted, one of the reasons the Tiahrt-Moran contest is so competitive is because whomever secures the GOP nomination is likely to win the general election. But in many parts of the country, only courting a segment of the electorate is risky. Swing voters determine elections. These are people in the center who sway between voting Democratic and Republican. Granted, if this proves to be a Republican year, it can be argued that the GOP marshaled the majority of those swing voters. But some of the messages of the right are too extreme to those valuable swing voters who Republicans are attempting to charm.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that a case study in this phenomenon is playing out in Kansas, immortalized in the "Wizard of Oz." Both Moran and Tiahrt are claiming to be the true conservative in the race. But in this movie, they both hope a little dog will run up, pull back a curtain and reveal the other to be a charlatan, much like Wizard was.

There's a great line in the Wizard of Oz when Miss Gulch visits the farm and spirits Toto away. Aunt Em is distraught and lays into Gulch.

"For 23 years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it," Aunt Em says.

It's been a different story in the Kansas GOP Senate primary. Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran have said just about everything possible they can about one another. That plays well to the conservative crowd and works in this race. But efforts to veer too far right won't work in other contests. Especially when candidates have locked down the conservatives and now are trying to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.