By LINDSAY WISE
Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., 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 he'd spent the past two years as part of that same leadership team and had voted in favor of the last trillion-dollar spending bill, in January.
So why did Moran buck the party line this time and align himself with a rebellious right-wing voting bloc dubbed the Cruz caucus?
It might have something to do with the fact he's up for re-election in 2016.
Two years ago, Moran took on a high-profile role in the party leadership when he became the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the GOP in the Senate.
Although he succeeded in helping Republicans wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November, some conservative activists in Kansas resented the part Moran's committee had played in thwarting tea party challenger Milton Wolf's bid to oust incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
They accused Moran of becoming part of the Washington establishment.
So when Moran joined Cruz, a Texas senator, and 10 other Republicans last week -- not only to oppose the omnibus but also 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 likely is more practical than personal, said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
"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 Moran, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996, does have a history of occasionally deviating from the party line: He bucked then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2003 by voting against creating the prescription-drug program Medicare Part D, and he voted no on 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 reason to be nervous. The leader of at least one conservative political action group already has announced 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, the 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 last omnibus in January, he issued a news release explaining he'd 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 although the senator did vote 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 popular among Kansans.