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SPOTLIGHT
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Congressional challenges seldom work

Published on -6/1/2014, 1:15 PM

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Congress' public approval rating could hardly get lower, hovering around 10 percent while disapproval numbers top 70 percent. Voters have been in a 'throw the bums out' mood for years, yet incumbent re-election rates stay above 90 percent.

Primary challenges in other states have been unsuccessful in 2014, and Kansas probably will follow suit. Only one primary shows signs of being competitive, and it was an incumbent shoo-in until last week. All eyes will be on Wichita in August as a former congressman has entered the primary against his successor in what will be a bruising and costly Republican primary.

In the First Congressional District, Tim Huelskamp has his first competition since he won the 2010 Republican primary.

Former legislator Kent Roth has withdrawn, leaving Alan LaPolice as his sole Republican challenger.

Huelskamp has made a national name for himself, but his removal from the Agriculture Committee gives LaPolice an easy campaign message. To be competitive, LaPolice will need to fund-raise aggressively for the second quarter, having reported less than $20,000 to the FEC for the first quarter of 2014.

Roth's withdrawal was a huge favor to LaPolice, because he will need all of the GOP anti-Huelskamp vote to overcome the incumbent's significant in-district support.

Jim Sherow and Bryan Whitney have entered the race as Democrats, but the heavy GOP registration advantage suggests the only way Huelskamp loses is in a primary.

Although Democratic registration numbers suggest the best chance for one to unseat a Kansas Republican this year is in the Second District, Margie Wakefield's novice status and limited resources do not portend success.

Incumbent Lynn Jenkins was able to convince state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald to stay out of the primary, which would have been the race to watch. Like Huelskamp, Jenkins has a significant money advantage.

Paul Davis' gubernatorial campaign will absorb much of Kansas' Democratic money, drawing from other Democratic hopefuls. Wakefield has raised just $300,000, dwarfed by Jenkins' $1.3 million on hand.

The strongest Democratic challenge might be in the district most recently represented by one, the Third District.

Even that best-positioned Democrat is eight points behind her Republican opponent.

Incumbent Kevin Yoder has been the subject of embarrassing news, and now he has a substantive challenge from former state legislator and lieutenant governor nominee Kelly Kultala.

Reggie Marselus also has filed, but Kultala's statewide campaign experience and fundraising capacity makes her the most likely nominee to face Yoder in November.

Yoder, like Jenkins, has no primary opponent.

In the Fourth District, one moment has turned a sure-fire re-election into the must-watch campaign of the primary.

Mike Pompeo would have had a safe and easy re-election bid if former Congressman Todd Tiahrt had decided not to run.

But on Thursday, Tiahrt decided to return to the campaign environment with a history of no-holds-barred campaigning, turning a quiet primary season into a potential bloodbath.

However, Tiahrt's entry will be as risky as it will be divisive. State Republicans still hold fresh memories of his bitter Senate primary against Jerry Moran in 2010 and would like all GOP candidates unified in preparation for the general election.

Whoever wins the expensive and doubtlessly nasty primary will be the favorite against non-profit leader Perry Schuckmanm, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the state senate two years ago.

Voters often say they will "throw the bums out" and defeat incumbent legislators with whom they are dissatisfied. But such wholesale change never happens in Congress, either because of the incumbent's popularity or a lack of challenger quality. Kansas' U.S. House primaries in 2014 have some potential for change, but stability and across-the-board re-election is the likeliest result.

Chapman Rackaway is a Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University.

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