Government & Politics

Presidential campaigns eye upcoming contests in Kansas, Missouri

The Democratic presidential candidates are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The Democratic presidential candidates are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. AP file photo

In a small conference room in Johnson County, a handful of volunteers feels the Bern.

Some are studying computer screens and smartphones, getting ready to call voters on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ behalf. A few weeks ago, Sarah Parrish helped the campaign in Iowa.

“We genuinely understand the importance of what a Sanders administration could do for the future of the country,” she said.

It would be inaccurate to call this room a beehive of activity. Too early for that.

But in rooms like this across Kansas and Missouri, the presidential campaign is slowly coming to life. Hired staff members are trickling into both states. Yard signs are going up. Coffees, rallies and fundraisers are being scheduled — Chelsea Clinton comes to the area this week. More surrogates or the candidates themselves may follow.

Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, talked last week about his support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Kansas will hold presidential caucuses March 5, and Missouri holds a primary March 15. It’s increasingly likely the presidential nominations in both parties will still be in doubt on those dates, potentially making both states important stops on the 2016 political calendar.

“The real battle is the cluster of contests between March 1 and March 15,” said Clayton Barker, director of the Kansas Republican Party. “When we wake up Wednesday, March 16, we’ll either have a clear leader or the prospect of a long battle of attrition.”

No one expects the contests in Kansas or Missouri to draw the kind of attention paid in Iowa, New Hampshire or even South Carolina, where candidates and campaigns spend weeks before voters make their choices known. The retail stage of the campaign is over — candidates now must rely largely on ads and media coverage, not hand-shaking, to reach their supporters.

And unlike February, when the early states have the stage to themselves, the March calendar is crowded with contests in other states. That means campaigns must make strategic decisions on where to spend their time and money, and some states can be left behind.

The so-called SEC primary is set for March 1. On that day, more than a dozen states — many of them home to universities in the Southeastern athletic conference — will hold full or partial primaries and caucuses, allocating hundreds of delegates. More primaries are scheduled for March 8.

Both Super Tuesdays could put a dent in enthusiasm for contests in the Sunflower and Show-Me states, if the outcomes on those days appear decisive.

Yet if the races are still alive, there may be value in both Kansas and Missouri. For a relatively small investment, candidates conceivably could capture more delegates than they took in Iowa or New Hampshire. And in a close race, that handful of delegates could matter.

“I quite frankly think we’re going to be extremely relevant this year on both sides,” Nixon said. “The races are going to be alive and going on March 15.”

Some are shocked at the success of Bernie Sanders. Trump's populism is attractive to Republican voters. But the race is far from being decided.

Here’s a look at the approaching presidential nominating contests in Kansas and Missouri:

Kansas

Republicans and Democrats will meet in schoolhouses, libraries and churches on Saturday, March 5, to make their presidential preferences known. The process is complicated — and different — in each party.

Republicans will meet at 10 a.m. They must have registered as Republicans by Feb. 4 and must present photo identification at caucus sites. There is at least one caucus in most counties, and voters may choose any site within their congressional district.

Presidential candidates had to pay the Kansas GOP $15,000 to get on the caucus ballot. Eleven candidates did so, but only seven — Rubio, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich and Carly Fiorina — will be on the ballot.

Fiorina has left the race but did not want her name removed from the ballot, which was being printed this week.

Representatives of each candidate can speak to the caucus, and then secret ballots are cast. Voting is open between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and a voter can cast a ballot any time during that period.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum swept the Kansas GOP caucuses in 2012, suggesting the ongoing importance of religious conservatives in caucus states. That could be good news for Cruz, whose campaign has been built to appeal to social and religious conservatives.

Cruz is the most organized of any Republican presidential hopeful. His campaign manager, Jeff Roe, comes from neighboring Missouri — and he understands the intricacies of getting voters to caucus sites for casting ballots, as Iowa showed.

Carson, who also appeals to religious conservatives, could compete in Kansas. Brownback’s endorsement of Rubio could have some impact, although the governor is unpopular with many moderate Republicans, voters who might otherwise be drawn to Rubio.

Other GOP candidates may decide to invest less in Kansas and spend more time in Michigan, which holds its primary March 8. That’s particularly likely for Trump, who may see Michigan as a more important and reachable prize than Kansas.

Kansas Republicans will allocate their 40 delegates on a proportional basis.

Kansas Democrats also caucus on March 5. Only Democrats can take part, but voters can register the day of the caucuses.

Registration starts at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m., caucus-goers begin publicly dividing into candidate support groups at each caucus — a process similar to Iowa’s. Party officials will judge the strength of each candidate and then allocate the state’s 37 Democratic delegates.

Both Sanders and Clinton are expected to compete in Kansas. Sanders will be popular in college towns and some inner-ring suburbs, and Clinton will likely compete in rural areas and inner cities, where she enjoys support from African-American Democrats.

Kansas Democrats crammed into caucuses in 2008, when Clinton faced then-Sen. Barack Obama. Obama won the caucuses after extending his campaign structure aggressively in the state.

Could a 2016 candidate use Obama’s strategy again?

“The potential is there,” said former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, who is working for the Clinton campaign. “The difference is, Clinton is the one who’s been working and organizing Kansas seriously.”

But he said Sanders’ young supporters appear more adept at some social media outreach, which could affect the caucus results.

Missouri

“It looks to me like we’ve got a five-way race on our hands,” said Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock. “That’s not likely to change much by the time Missouri happens on March 15.”

Other Republicans are less optimistic. Primaries on March 1 and 8 are likely to eliminate one or more of the so-called establishment candidates — Rubio, Kasich, Bush — potentially narrowing the field to just three or four candidates on Missouri’s primary day.

For now, though, the remaining major Republican campaigns are turning some attention to Missouri.

“We’re ready to compete everywhere,” said Jeremy Adler, a Midwest spokesman for Rubio.

Yet Rubio’s Missouri campaign may be compromised by the politics in his home state of Florida, which also holds a primary March 15. He and Bush, a former Florida governor, are expected to compete fiercely for the state, assuming both are still candidates. The loser of a Bush-Rubio fight in Florida almost certainly would have to end his campaign.

Kasich also faces a home-state primary on March 15 in Ohio. If Kasich thinks his lead is comfortable there, and if the other candidates stay out of Ohio, Kasich may feel free to invest heavily in Missouri.

If not, Missouri will be a two-way GOP contest between Trump and Cruz.

Republicans think that after weeks of quiet, Trump is beginning to ramp up in the state. Yet Cruz will be helped by his work with Roe, who understands Missouri better than any other state. Religious conservatives along the state’s southern border also will be expected to help the Texas Republican.

Some Republicans scoffed at suggestions that Roe would control the outcome in Missouri. Trump will be a key indicator: If he doesn’t campaign heavily in Missouri, he has likely concluded that Cruz and Roe have locked up the state.

Private polling shows Trump has a lead in Missouri, but that could change.

Whatever attention Missouri draws is likely to be concentrated in St. Louis, not Kansas City, Hancock said. That’s because Illinois also holds a primary March 15, so St. Louis ads and media coverage will extend into two voting states.

If any GOP candidate gets more than half of Missouri’s primary votes, he’ll win all of the state’s 52 convention delegates. If not, the delegates will be allocated on a proportional basis.

On the Democratic side, Clinton is the early-book favorite in Missouri. She has the endorsement of most of the party’s hierarchy, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has been sharply critical of Sanders’ candidacy. The former first lady also enjoys an advantage in the African-American community, a margin Sanders wants to narrow.

Missouri will have 71 Democratic convention delegates at stake March 15. They’ll be awarded in proportion to each candidate’s vote totals.

Thirteen more delegates, including Nixon, are officially unpledged, although most are thought to be Clinton supporters.

There’s another wild card in Missouri, one that will draw the attention of political pros in all campaigns. The state’s voters don’t register by party, so they can vote in either primary on Election Day (but not both).

That means independents and even some Democrats could cross over and support Trump or Cruz. Republicans could vote in the Democratic primary, potentially supporting the candidate perceived to be weaker.

What’s to come

So far the TV screens are pretty silent. Federal records show no presidential ad buys in recent days. Campaigning in Kansas and Missouri is limited to small phone banks and weekend meetings.

Yet officials in both parties, in both states, say voter interest is high. They expect solid turnouts in March if the race in either party is still in doubt.

“Our primary will take place at a critical time, we could be a very large delegate prize, and there is no clear favorite to win,” said Jonathan Prouty, director of the Missouri GOP.

“I would expect to see an energetic campaign here.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Brownback endorses Rubio

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has become the first sitting governor to endorse Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for president.

The Rubio campaign announced the endorsement Monday. “Just like Governor Brownback, Marco has consistently defended life, small government and free enterprise throughout his career in public service,” Rubio’s Midwest spokesman, Jeremy Adler, said in a statement.

Brownback, a Republican who once ran for president, endorsed then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Perry was a candidate for the 2016 GOP nomination but withdrew.

“Marco Rubio has a proven track record of protecting life, defending religious liberty and undoing Obamacare,” Brownback’s statement said. “He will be a wonderful president, and I am proud to offer him my full support.”

Brownback’s decision is a mild surprise. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is a favorite of many religious conservatives like Brownback. Jeff Roe is the campaign manager for Cruz, and the consultant has had some political influence in Kansas.

It isn’t clear what impact the endorsement will have on the Rubio effort in Kansas. Brownback is not a favorite with many moderate Republicans in the state, voters who might otherwise be drawn to the Rubio candidacy.

On the other hand, religious conservatives look to Brownback for cues — and may decide Rubio is an acceptable alternative to Cruz or Donald Trump.

Dave Helling, dhelling@kcstar.com

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