Moore Defies Numbers in Toss-Up Kansas District

It may look like a classic case of re-election vulnerability: a Democratic incumbent in a heartland district that appears to be growing more Republican every year.

But Rep. Dennis Moore (search) says he’s outwitted the opposition in three prior elections and this year will be no exception.

"I’ve had to put together coalitions of Republicans and Democrats and independents to win and I’ve been able to do that three times," the Kansas native told "People in my district may be registered one way, but they are pretty independent, too."

Nonetheless, political handicappers consider Moore’s 3rd Congressional District race one of the most hotly contested in the House this year. The Rothenberg Political Report (search) has it in the "toss up/tilting Democrat" category, while the Cook Political Report has it in its 13 top toss-up contests. Meanwhile, Campaigns and Elections Political Oddsmaker (search) gives Moore a 52 percent chance of winning this year.

"It’s always going to be a close race," concedes Mark Simpson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, "but he’s strong in that district … people have had the choice before, and they have chosen Dennis Moore and he’s done a good job, and I don’t know why they wouldn’t choose him again."

Rep. Jim Matheson (search), D-Utah, a fellow moderate from a district that is also heavily Republican, said this is proof of Moore’s good standing. "People like to throw around labels and what-not," Matheson told "But at the end of the day, Dennis Moore has represented this district for three terms and the people know what they’ve got. The proof is in that."

Currently, the Third District takes in the largely working-class and Democratic Wyandotte County in south Kansas City; the more populated suburban Johnson County, which is mostly Republican; and some of Douglas County. The district is located just over the Missouri border and is home to many commuters to neighboring Kansas City, Mo.

Moore, a member of the moderate Democrat Blue Dog Coalition (search) since he was first elected in 1998, says he has balanced conservative fiscal positions with common-sense approaches to social issues, like health care and Social Security (search).

He voted for President Bush’s first series of tax cuts in 2001, but did not vote for them in 2003 because of the growing federal deficits (search).

Moore, a former district attorney for Johnson County, balks at the idea he is a party player whose loyalties might get in the way of his district.

"I really don’t feel like I have any party responsibility, I do have responsibility to the people in my district and to myself," he said.

But all of Moore’s moderate credentials may not be worth a blue dog as campaign season reaches a fever pitch. National Republicans, who feel they could have won his seat in 2002 if they had put some muscle behind upstart Adam Taff (search), say they are paying attention this year.

"My support from Washington is like night and day," said Taff, who lost to Moore 50 percent to 47 percent and is running again in the August primary. "We believe the national support and heavy hitters will be there for us this time."

Taff, a former Navy pilot, says he’s boosted his name recognition, solidified his grassroots effort and organization and has a message that plays to the Republican majority there.

"The demographics for [Moore] are becoming more difficult for him everyday," said Taff. "A lot of the technical dynamics are more advantageous to us this time. That’s why we think we can do better."

But Taff has to watch his right flank. Kris Kobach (search), who worked as an adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft on border security issues, says the district is open to someone more conservative. He said he blames Moore for being less moderate than he pronounces and thinks Taff already lost one golden chance to win the seat.

"In 1998, Moore presented himself as a conservative Democrat, an independent voter that would not be tied to his party," said Kobach, who returned to his work as a constitutional law professor after leaving the Justice Department in 2003. "That has not proven to be the case, he has consistently voted with the far-left wing of his party."

Kobach is campaigning hard in support of a federal marriage amendment (search) and closing loopholes in immigration and border security (search) laws. As for Taff, who appears to be favored by political forecasters, Kobach has given him no quarter on the campaign trail.

"We guarantee we will do better than Taff," he said. "It’s just a brutal reality that rematches don’t work. We need a Republican who has got a fighting chance."

Republican state Rep. Patricia Lightner (search) said she won’t be counted out of that equation just yet. She may be a dark horse, but she boasts the only legislative experience out of the three Republicans running in the August primary.

Lightner said she looks out for the "best interests of the state," and denounced what she called the "hate and fear mongering," of Kobach on the immigration issue.

This contentiousness is just fine with Democrats. "The fact is they are very divided, they are having a very hard-fought ideological primary," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed, who speculated that "the same tired rhetoric" against Moore still won’t work against him.

Don’t be so sure, said Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (search). Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district 202,000 to 128,000, a greater gap than in 2002. "We feel good about any of the people running in this primary," he said.

Moore said his record speaks for itself, and he disparages the partisan labels that he says dominate the landscape at election time.

The people of his district, he said: "are more concerned with their families, education for their children, and their jobs — everything it takes to live in this world. I really believe that’s the case and that’s why they’ve elected a Democrat three times."