Democrats exiting the sinking ship? Kansas

Comes the news that Democratic Congressman Dennis Moore of the 3rd district of Kansas is not running for reelection. Interesting. Congressman Moore was reelected by a 56%-40% margin in 2008, and Barack Obama carried his district 51%-48%, while losing the other three congressional districts in Kansas.

There could be many plausible reasons for Moore to retire from Congress. He turns 65 in 2010 and at the end of his term will have served 12 years in Congress. He served 12 years as Johnson County District Attorney in 1976-88, and so he’s devoted more than half his working lifetime to public service. Serving in Congress means having to go back and forth between your district and Washington all the time (and a quick look at a travel website shows only two flights per day between Reagan National and Kansas City International), constantly being reachable by your constituents, etc., etc.

All that said, this still seems an ominous sign for congressional Democrats. Moore was first elected in 1998 when he beat one-term incumbent Vince Snowbarger. Moore profited from a bitter split in the Republican party between hard-line opponents of abortion (including Snowbarger) and moderates based in Johnson County. That split persisted for a decade; the current governor of Kansas, Mark Parkinson, is a longtime moderate Republican and sometime state legislator who was chosen as a ticket-mate by Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius and who succeeded her when she resigned to become Health and Human Services Secretary; Parkinson has said he will not run for a full term in 2010.

Moore’s moderate mien and voting record, his history of winning votes in Johnson County and internecine Republican fighting enabled him to win reelection five times. He won 65%-34% in 2006, his best showing, and against challenger Nick Jordan, a moderate touted by national Republicans, he won by the very solid margin of 56%-40%. Moore was undoubtedly helped by the Obama candidacy in 2008 in the three distinct parts of the district.

?In Wyandotte County, which includes Kansas City, Kansas, with its black community; turnout was up 7% (despite zero population growth) between 2004 and 2008 and Obama carried the county 70%-29%, with a 23,000-vote margin.

?Historically Republican Johnson County, containing many of the affluent suburbs of metro Kansas City, is now the largest and highest-voting county in Kansas. Turnout in 2008 was up 10% from 2004. In that year Johnson County voted 61%-38% for George W. Bush; in 2008 it voted only 54%-45% for John McCain. The Republican margin was cut from 60,000 to 25,000—barely enough to offset the Obama margin in much smaller Wyandotte County. Johnson County has had robust population growth (8% in 2004-08) and turnout seems likely to be robust in this affluent area in 2010. 

?The 3rd district also includes part of Douglas County, including most of the old New England Yankee-established town of Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas. Historically Douglas County was Republican and in presidential elections from 1920 to 1988 voted Democratic only once, in 1964. But starting in 1992 it has voted Democratic in every presidential election. Kansas was not a target state, so we can assume that the Obama campaign did not spend lavishly on organization here; even so, turnout was up 7% countywide in 2008 over 2004, and the Democratic margin increased from 57%-41% to 64%-34%. In popular votes the margin doubled from 8,000 votes to 16,000 votes.

That’s how the three parts of the district voted in 2008. Now look at the prospects for each of them in 2010 from Dennis Moore’s point of view, keeping in mind current public opinion polling and the results in the actual elections held in 2009. In Wyandotte County, black turnout is likely to be sharply down from 2008, when Americans elected our first African-American president.  Moore’s vote for House Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill could be a liability if Republicans can convince lower-income voters that it means higher utility rates for them. In Johnson County, opposition to the big government programs of the Obama administration and congressional Democratic leaders is likely to produce sharply increased Republican percentages and could produce robust offyear turnout.  Moore’s vote for the House Democrats’ health care bill is likely to be a political liability here. In Douglas County, turnout among students and college town denizens is likely to be off, particularly among those voters who hoped that Obama’s installation would produce a speedy end to American involvement in Iraq. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that Kansas Republicans will be riven by the abortion war that raged between 1998 and 2006, as economic issues have overwhelmed cultural issues in voters’ minds.

In other words, 2010 undoubtedly looks like an uphill race for Dennis Moore. By announcing his retirement, he is free to vote for House Democratic leaders’ unpopular legislation without political repercussion and is spared the trouble of extensive campaigning. That’s fine for him. But if other Democratic incumbents in marginal districts—and, remember, the 3rd district voted for Obama—choose to follow Moore’s course, that could make it much harder to Democrats to maintain a big majority in the House and could make it easier for Republicans to gain most or all of the 41 seats they need to win a majority there.

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