Farm issues key in Kansas Republican congressional race

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A commercial real estate broker from Salina who ran for Congress 10 years ago and an eye surgeon from Finney County are trying to draw attention to themselves and distinctions from one another ahead of an August Republican primary that's likely to decide who will win Kansas' 1st District seat.

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The two candidates with the most active campaigns, Tracey Mann, a real estate broker who was briefly lieutenant governor, and Bill Clifford, a doctor, U.S. Air Force veteran and Finney County commissioner, are both anti-abortion, pro-gun and say they plan to support President Donald Trump’s policies. So voters will be looking at other issues to differentiate the candidates who seek to replace Rep. Roger Marshall, who's running for the U.S. Senate.

The candidate with the most votes will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November. The seat seat hasn't been won by a Democrat since 1952. It's one of the nation’s most Republican congressional districts and has elected three congressmen who went on to become U.S. senators over the past 50 years.

The Aug. 4 primary is “Mann’s to lose,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist, but he added that Clifford could make the race competitive if he “puts himself on people’s radar.”

The 1st District's congressperson is expected to represent Kansas on the House Agriculture Committee, a post former Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost after clashes with former House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders. The removal caused local farm groups to turn against Huelskamp before he was ousted in 2016 by Marshall, who gained a seat on the committee.

The state’s main farm lobby, the Kansas Farm Bureau, endorsed Mann last month. That endorsement is “probably the most important endorsement any (1st Congressional District) candidate can get," said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist.

Other candidates on the primary ballot are Jerry Molstad, a physician's assistant, and Michael Soetaert, who listed himself as a reverend. The Democratic candidates are Kali Barnett, an author and music teacher, and Christy Davis, a former nonprofit executive director.

Mann has been increasing his profile in the area since his failed effort in the GOP primary for the seat in 2010, former Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said.

“He did extremely well in that primary. He raised a lot of money, made a lot of inroads with people across the district, but ultimately, with a five-way primary, with basically five heavy-hitters, the vote split on that,” Arnold said.

Mann’s April campaign finance reports showed he received $548,667 in total contributions. Clifford’s reports showed total contributions of $703,678, including $435,000 he loaned the campaign

“A lot of people would say that Tracey Mann is in a good position, but if Clifford is able to put a lot of resources in, he can make it competitive,” Beatty said. “If Clifford doesn’t do anything, I would guess Tracey Mann wins because of such high name recognition, but Clifford is already doing what he needs to be doing at this point.”

Some Republican voters have already made up their minds. Celia Beymer, a GOP activist from Kearny County, is supporting Mann, who was born and raised on a family farm. Clifford may be “talented with the knife on the eye,” Beymer said, referring to Clifford's background as an ophthalmologist, but she doesn't like his lack of an agricultural background.

“He’s not a farmer for crying out loud,” she said.

State Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, and former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, are supporting Clifford, who removed both their cataracts.

“I just know him better and I just know his background and I’m retired Air Force also,” Morris said.

Hineman is backing Clifford partly due to his “age and experience and maturity,” but he said he still thinks Mann, if elected, would “do a great job for the Big First.”

“I don’t think you can go wrong either way. I have confidence in both candidates,” Hineman said.


Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.