Jerry Moran of Kansas was one of only 11 Republican senators who teamed up this month with tea party favorite Ted Cruz on three votes intended to stall or defeat the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill — a failed but headline-grabbing maneuver that put him at odds with GOP leadership.
Moran’s move raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill, especially given that he’d spent the past two years as part of that same leadership team and had voted in January in favor of the last trillion-dollar spending bill.
So why did Moran buck the party line this time and align himself with the “Cruz caucus,” a rebellious right-wing voting bloc?
It might have something to do with the fact that he’s up for re-election in 2016.
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Two years ago, Moran took on a high-profile role in the party leadership as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the GOP in the Senate.
Although he helped Republicans wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November, some conservative activists in Kansas resented the part Moran’s committee played in thwarting tea party challenger Milton Wolf’s bid to oust incumbent Republican Pat Roberts.
They accused Moran of becoming part of the Washington establishment.
So when Moran joined Cruz, a senator from Texas, and 10 other Republicans last week — not only to oppose the omnibus but to delay a vote on the bill and support a constitutional point of order to protest the president’s executive action on immigration — conservatives in Kansas took note.
Voting for the massive spending bill “would be a terrible way to start off his re-election effort,” said Jim Howell, an outgoing conservative state representative in Kansas who recently was elected Sedgwick County commissioner.
“He’s avoiding the controversy leading up to his next election,” Howell said. “Had he voted for the spending bill it would have hurt him, and it would have hurt him up to two years. This is a big deal. This omnibus bill is one that has offended a lot of our constituents.”
Moran’s office said he was unavailable for comment on this article.
The Kansas lawmaker’s apparent affinity for any Cruz-led faction in the Senate is probably more practical than personal, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
“Cruz has become a bit of a tea party darling,” Rackaway said. “When Cruz is in the news, there’s a lot of folks out here (in Kansas) that really like him, and they’re encouraging him to run for president. And since Moran has always been a constituency-first legislator, he sees that as a kind of proxy for the direction the state wants to go in.”
But political coalitions tend to shift, Rackaway said. Moran won’t necessarily lock in with Cruz.
“Cruz is trying to retake some momentum in the media for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination,” Rackaway said. Moran “is fully focused on his re-election here in 2016, and I don’t think he wants to get pulled into any presidential games because that could easily take him away from the state.”
Rackaway pointed out that Moran, who was elected to the House in 1996, has a history of occasionally deviating from the party line. He bucked House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2003 by voting against creating the prescription drug program Medicare Part D, and he voted against President George W. Bush’s landmark education initiative, No Child Left Behind.
But if Moran is preparing for a possible primary challenge from the right, he has a reason to be nervous. The leader of at least one conservative political action group already has announced that he considers Moran a top target in 2016.
“Jerry Moran is having a temporary election year conversion, but he isn’t fooling anyone,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
“Moran has voted for higher taxes, more debt and funding for Obamacare, in addition to leading numerous attacks against conservative candidates,” Cuccinelli said in an email. “Our grass-roots members in Kansas are very disappointed with his record and hope to be able to support a conservative alternative.”
Moran is popular in Kansas, and he spends a lot of time shoring up his support there. Still, some conservatives in the state say they’re wary of trusting any politician’s voting record in the two years before an election. They say they’re feeling cheated after their other senator, Roberts, voted against a trillion-dollar omnibus in January when he was facing re-election and then voted in favor of this year’s omnibus last week, just after winning a fourth term.
Craig Gabel, a Wichita restaurant owner who leads Kansans for Liberty, said Roberts appeared to be returning to his “normal pattern” of more moderate votes.
“We were hoping he’d actually heard the voice of the people and his base and said, ‘Hey, I need to be a little further to the right than I have been in the past,’” Gabel said. “I hate to judge him on one vote, (but) I’m pessimistic.”
When Roberts voted against the previous omnibus in January, he issued a news release explaining that he had opposed the spending bill because it “busted the budget caps we set just a few years ago.”
There was no news release from Roberts to explain his vote in favor this month.
A spokeswoman for Roberts, Sarah Little, pointed out that although the senator voted for the omnibus last week to avoid a government shutdown, he also voted for the Cruz resolution to stop amnesty for immigrants who are in the country illegally, which was very popular among Kansans.