How Trump-y should candidates be? Kansas Republicans will decide in 2nd District primary

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After Rep. Jake LaTurner sided with House GOP leaders in March and voted for a $1.2 trillion spending bill, the Crawford County Republican Party posted an open letter criticizing Kansas’ 2nd District congressman.

The message of frustration came from an area familiar to LaTurner. Before joining Congress, the Republican represented the county, which includes Pittsburg, in the state Senate.

“We love having someone from (southeast Kansas) representing the 2nd District but the voters need you to stand strong for our values and not just go along with swampy mega-bills!” read the letter, signed by the county party’s communications director and posted on social media.

Last week, LaTurner announced he won’t seek reelection, citing a desire to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with family. The decision shocked Kansas Republicans, who had assumed the 36-year-old had a long political career ahead of him, though he is part of a wave of Republican members who have resigned or retired. LaTurner would have likely been a strong favorite to win the GOP nomination and the general election.

Still, signs of conservative anger had emerged. Kansas Republican Party Chairman Mike Brown in a newsletter to party members last month rebuked LaTurner and other members of the state’s congressional delegation who voted for the spending package, writing that “the base is mad as hell.”

Now Republicans in the 2nd District – which spans much of eastern Kansas including Topeka, Leavenworth and northern Wyandotte County – face an open race. Depending on who jumps in, GOP voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to stick with a LaTurner-like candidate or choose a more uncompromising hard-right figure.

The primary contest, the first without an incumbent since 2018, also provides a fresh test of how far Republicans expect their candidates to go in embracing former President Donald Trump. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee is currently on trial in New York and could have a felony conviction by Election Day.

Interviews with Kansas Republicans since LaTurner’s announcement offers a mixed view of what the party wants in their next member of Congress, suggesting an element of pragmatism is important. They seek a Trump supporter, but also someone who can compromise. They want someone worldly, but also rooted in Kansas.

“Of course, I think you have to be a conservative. But I think you have to be a person who can work with both sides also,” state Rep. Chuck Smith, a Pittsburg Republican, said.

Washington has “such a divide” at the moment, Smith said, adding that someone is needed who can “listen to the other side, maybe work with the other side.

“I’m not against far right, but I think if you’re far right you’re probably not going to get anything done,” he said.

No candidates have entered the race yet, but discussion among Kansas Republicans has centered on a handful of names. Former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and state Sens. Caryn Tyson and Dennis Pyle are seen as potential candidates, along with Kansas House Majority Leader Chris Croft and Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson. Candidates will likely enter soon because raising money often becomes more difficult the longer you wait.

Schmidt, the most prominent potential candidate, lost a close race to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in 2022. He has been largely out of the public eye for the past year and became a partner at the law firm Husch Blackwell.

More than any other likely candidate, Schmidt would enter the race with significant name recognition. LaTurner’s relatively late decision to not run created a compressed campaign cycle, making existing name ID an extremely valuable advantage in a shorter-than-usual race.

Schmidt entered the race for governor with a reputation as a conservative with a more-moderate streak. But Schmidt ran a campaign that at times leaned into culture war issues, including attempting to link Kelly to drag shows, as he dealt with an independent bid from Pyle, who ran to Schmidt’s right.

In the governor’s race, Schmidt effectively bypassed a competitive primary after former Gov. Jeff Colyer dropped out early in the race. How Schmidt would handle a highly competitive multi-candidate primary today is unclear.

Former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Eric Pahls, a political consultant who was a spokesperson for Schmidt’s campaign for governor, said appealing to GOP base voters and bolstering a candidate’s electability aren’t mutually exclusive in the 2nd District.

“You listen to the base because it’s kind of the same base in the general election,” Pahls said. “It’s not an ideological litmus test. It’s who cares, it’s who supports President Trump, certainly who reflects our values, and then who has and will put the people of the 2nd District first. I know that sounds idealistic, but it can be that simple.”

At the same time, Pahls said Republicans don’t always do a good job of recognizing why people are Republicans. “And it’s not to score points online,” he said.

“It’s because they want the government off their backs. They want a country where it’s easier to raise a family, buy a house and make a living. And I think we ought to focus on that,” Pahls said.

‘We expect better’

The 2nd District, which was redrawn by state lawmakers in 2022 to exclude Lawrence, is considered a safe Republican seat. Trump won the district, as it’s currently drawn, by a 19-point margin in 2016 and a 16-point in 2020, according to data compiled by Patrick Miller, a political science professor at Kent State University.

That may give Republican candidates with a more brash public persona than LaTurner room to succeed – to a point. Army veteran Steve Watkins won in 2018, but became ensnared in a series of scandals centered on questionable claims about his background. LaTurner defeated him in the 2020 primary.

“From what I could tell with Jake LaTurner, he kind of viewed being pro-Trump as a box to check,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University.

LaTurner was adept at using Trump-like rhetoric, Smith said. But he never struck Smith as a true believer who was all-in for the former president. “He understood to placate his base he needed to check those boxes,” Smith said.

In Congress, LaTurner appeared firmly aligned with Republican leadership. He had seats on two prominent committees – the House Oversight Committee, which is in charge of investigations, and the House Appropriations Committee, which determines which federal projects get money.

Those seats allowed him to do a congressional two step, where he could weigh in on high-profile partisan investigations, like the House’s inquiry into Hunter Biden, while also working on a committee that could get tangible benefits for his district.

In the March spending bill that drew ire from conservatives, LaTurner secured around $22.4 million for projects in the 2nd District.

But his decision to back that bill, along with his votes to temporarily lift the debt ceiling and his eventual support for Ukraine funding, clearly angered some Republicans. Brown, the Kansas Republican Party chairman, said in a party newsletter that the base grassroots vocally opposed the spending package.

The letter posted by the Crawford County Republican Party distilled the disappointment with LaTurner.

“We expect better because we know you are better and you share our values in wanting to keep this nation free and safe so that our children can all grow up even more free than we did,” the letter said.

In an email to The Star, Brown said that whoever wins “must be prepared to represent Kansas Republicans’ values on day one.”

“As the party of smaller government, less taxes, and more freedom, we all look forward to the future Kansas CD-2 Congressman working closely with the state party and representing the great citizens of CD-2 and all of Kansas,” Brown said.

State Rep. Kenneth Collins, a Mulberry Republican, said he didn’t always agree with LaTurner but called the congressman dedicated. More “adults in the room” are needed in Washington, he said.

Collins said the definition of a conservative has seemingly changed since he first registered as a Republican when he turned 18 more than 40 years ago. While he calls himself the “old kind of conservative,” he acknowledges some people now call him a moderate.

“But I just want someone that whatever they do, they’ll have our best interest as a district and as a country and not just following any one particular leader,” Collins said. “I want someone, whatever their votes, whatever their policies they take, it not just be ‘follow the leader,’ it’d be something they truly think is beneficial for our country.”