Government & Politics

Kansas Republicans line up for the ‘Golden Ticket’ as congressional seat opens

Salina Republican Tracey Mann, right, launched a campaign Monday for Kansas’ 1st congressional district after previously serving as lieutenant governor under Jeff Colyer, left.
Salina Republican Tracey Mann, right, launched a campaign Monday for Kansas’ 1st congressional district after previously serving as lieutenant governor under Jeff Colyer, left. The Wichita Eagle

A U.S. House seat in one of the country’s most heavily Republican districts is up for grabs now that Rep. Roger Marshall has entered the race for U.S. Senate.

“It’s like the ‘Golden Ticket,’” said former Kansas Republican chair Kelly Arnold. “If you win this primary, you’re going to win this congressional seat.”

Marshall’s long-awaited Senate campaign announcement on Saturday served as the formal launch of what promises to be a crowded race in Kansas’ 1st Congressional District.

On Monday Tracey Mann, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Jeff Colyer for less than a year, was the first to Republican to file a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

“He’s going to be probably our top prospect,” Arnold said.

Democrat Kali Barnett, an elementary school teacher, started campaigning in August, but will face an uphill battle.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 1 in the sprawling 63-county district, which covers western and central Kansas. The seat has gone to a Democrat only once in the state’s history. Democrat Howard Miller won in 1952 when the boundaries were significantly different, but was ousted two years later.

Republicans, on the other hand, have used the “Big First” to begin long political careers. Both of Kansas’ current GOP senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, held the seat before their elections to the Senate, as did former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Arnold said the seat’s history as a stepping stone to higher office is one reason the race will be so attractive. A long list of incumbent and former state lawmakers, as well as members of the business community, are considering runs.

Mann, a real estate broker from Salina, sought the seat in 2010, but lost a three-way primary to Tea Party favorite Tim Huelskamp.

Reached by phone hours before his FEC filing, Mann declined to answer questions. A late afternoon announcement confirming his candidacy noted his upbringing on a family farm and his background as Moran’s first congressional intern.

He also sought to firmly establish his conservative credentials with a fiery statement that warned against socialism.

“America faces urgent threats to our freedom. While President Trump is doing his best to right the ship, too many Washington politicians want to redefine our founding values and ideals. Socialism is on the rise. Efforts to impose government-run health care, increase taxes, restrict religious freedom and erode the Second Amendment are part of the same agenda,” Mann said.

Finney County Commissioner Bill Clifford, an ophthalmologist and Air Force veteran, is also expected to announce his candidacy in Garden City this week.

His wife, Jean Clifford, a fellow Air Force veteran, already represents much of the district as a member of the Kansas Board of Education.

“Over the last few days, I have received a number of phone calls from friends and stakeholders across the district encouraging me to run for Congress in the First Congressional District. My wife Jean and I have discussed this opportunity and believe this is the best opportunity to serve our community,” Clifford said in an email confirming his plans to pursue the seat.

“Dr. Marshall was a true conservative leader in Washington and represented our Kansas values. We need more strong leaders in Congress who will stand with President Trump and defend the values that make America great.”

State Rep. Troy Waymaster, the Kansas House budget chairman, said that he and his wife are in the process of making a decision.

“We’re not going to be jumping the gun and announcing within the next week,” Waymaster said. “We’re going to do it when the time is right.”

Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who operates a 5,000-acre farm with his father and uncle, said that the eventual nominee should be someone with deep agricultural experience.

“I think somebody who has not just a farming background, but breathes farming as their livelihood is going to resonate with farmers in the Big First,” said Waymaster, whose Kansas House district covers seven counties in the 1st.

Agriculture played a major role in the last competitive primary in the district.

Marshall successfully campaigned on a promise to recapture a seat on the House Agriculture Committee after incumbent Huelskamp’s clashes with GOP leadership cost the three-term Republican his spot, which has traditionally gone to the western Kansas congressman.

Huelskamp has ruled out another run. He said he’s familiar with the names being mentioned as potential successors for Marshall, but doesn’t see anyone he could support at this time.

Jared Suhn, a Kansas-based Republican strategist, said in a text that the culture of western Kansas requires candidates who are adept at retail politics.

“This is a race that will be won voter by voter and where hand-to-hand activity is king,” Suhn said. “More so than the rest of Kansas, this will be a very relationship-oriented contest.”

State Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican, said he’s been meeting with agricultural and other business leaders about his interest in anticipation of Marshall’s Senate run.

“I’ll need to decide pretty quickly,” said Johnson, who chairs the Kansas House Taxation Committee.

He said one concern is that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could enter the Senate race and force Marshall back into running for the House.

Marshall said he wouldn’t be distracted by “Washington hypotheticals” when asked about the notion he’d drop out of the Senate race if Pompeo entered.

“I am running to win this race. Simple as that,” he said.

The eventual nominee for the House seat should be a traditional Republican who doesn’t swing too far to the right or the left politically, Johnson said. In addition to himself, Johnson said both Mann and Waymaster would fit that description.

“If there’s Tracey and Troy and I, we’re in a situation where wherever we go we’re all right,” Johnson.

State Rep. Ken Rahjes, an Agra Republican who owns an agriculture news website, said like other prospective candidates he had been waiting on Marshall’s decision about the Senate race. Now that Marshall has announced, Rahjes is not going to speed up his own timeline.

“I’m in no hurry to make a final decision. I’m still talking to folks… looking at the possibility if it’s there. But there’s also a lot of things to do in the Kansas Legislature, where I am,” he said.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be a "solid candidate" for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Pat Roberts. Moran was at a Wichita event with Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy. (Sept. 5, 2019).

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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