In the News

Moran known for brand, dealmaking

Topeka Capital-Journal | Andrew Bahl

Amid the hoopla of a hotly contested governor's race in Kansas this year, you could be forgiven for forgetting that U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran is on the ballot, too.

Moran won his first two elections to the U.S. Senate by an average of 37 points and his 2022 contest isn't expected to be competitive either — despite a Republican Party that looks very different than it did when he first ran for the office in 2010.

Observers credit his commanding position in the Kansas Republican Party to a knack for retail politics, a focus on a core set of issues ranging from veterans affairs to trade and a modus operandi that resembles the way the U.S. Senate used to look two or three decades earlier.

"He approaches the job more as a traditional U.S. senator who looks to build a large body of work over many years with possible the goal of not being defined by one vote or even one issue or large controversy," said Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University. "But putting together that body of work that he would call a career."

Still, Moran has found himself in an interesting place in the Republican Party's post-Donald Trump world.

A lawmaker who has voted consistently with his party throughout the Trump administration, Moran was one of the first senators to earn the 2022 endorsement of the man himself in April.

The move caught some by surprise after Moran broke with his counterpart, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and voted to certify the 2020 election results.

Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump ally, said he found the move disappointing. Grassroots conservatives called for a primary challenger. The Clay County Republican Party even censured Moran over his vote.

But still, he walked away with the backing of Trump, who praised him as "doing a terrific job for the wonderful people of Kansas.

All the while, Moran has earned a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker, who also has a track record of using his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to secure federal investment in Kansas.

"The Senate, in many ways is different today than it was (before) — there, certainly are partisan and political differences," Moran said in an interview with The Capital-Journal. "I would tell you that they are not as evident. ... The big issues are difficult to find consensus on.Bbut the everyday stuff, it is still possible to find plenty of opportunities in which Republicans and Democrats work together to accomplish those kinds of things."

‘I would put him in the retail politician category’

When asked about his most prominent accomplishments in his second term in office, Moran focused on something less sexy than a bill getting signed into law or funding secured for a pet project.

He instead pointed to his office's work on constituent services, helping Kansans navigate the vagaries of the federal bureaucracy.

"The opportunity for a constituent, a Kansan, to call, to write, to stop me on the street and say, 'Listen to this story, here's what's going on in my life, because government did something,'" Moran said. "Those circumstances are often ones that are the most compelling about what this job enables me to do."

Observers say this shouldn't be a surprising answer from Moran, who spends significant time and energy engaging not just with everyday Kansans but local officials and stakeholders in a kind of politics that isn't practiced everywhere but which is valued in the Sunflower State.

Moran, for instance, hosted the most town hall events of any U.S. senator in 2019, according to the Town Hall Project, a group that tracks such events.

"I would put him in the retail politician category," said Terry Holdren, CEO and general counsel at the Kansas Farm Bureau. "Consistent in his approach to being back in Kansas, when possible, doing the town hall circuit, making sure that he's touching all 105 counties of the state and walking Main Street. ... I think that approach is a little bit different than we see other places today."

Still, Moran had 12 bills signed into law during the 2019-20 Congress, good for third-best among all U.S. senators, regardless of party.

The most impactful legislative effort Moran has been involved with, he said, was actually an Obama-era effort to allow veterans to bypass Veterans Administration facilities and receive care from private providers if certain conditions were met, including a veteran living more than 40 miles from a VA clinic.

In 2017, Trump signed an update to the effort, called the Veterans Choice Act, expanding eligibility further.

And Moran, currently the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, pointed to separate initiatives to open outpatient VA clinics in Hays, Hutchinson and Dodge City as a way of further expanding access for veterans.

"There are places in Kansas in which it's hours of travel for a veteran to access health care at the VA," he said. "And we've had a long history of trying to solve that problem."

The ability to work with agencies under both Democrat and Republican administrations was notable, Beatty said. Holdren pointed to his work with federal regulators pushing back on the classification of the lesser prairie chicken as endangered, a major issue for the state's farming and ranching communities.

"Getting things done often does take building relationships with not only just the other party but bureaucracies that are in place when the other party has the presidency," Beatty said. "And obviously, it's going to be easier to work with those bureaucracies if you're not just constantly on the attack."

And Moran also underscored his work with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in response to the conviction of Larry Nassar, a former United States women's national gymnastics team doctor, who was accused and ultimately convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts.

The pair of senators chaired a subcommittee investigation into the assaults and the U.S. Olympic Committee's actions and shepherded into law legislation expanding training requirements for officials to recognize abuse and shields athletes who report abuse from retaliation.

"I'm going to try to find people that want to solve problems and are willing to work to do that," Moran said.

Jerry Moran's style draws contrast with new counterpart, Roger Marshall

Moran's track record and legislative style draws an intriguing contrast with Marshall, his new counterpart.

Both will frequently work together on issues relating to Kansas and will often have similar voting patterns. They even share a common background, as both represented the 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House before migrating to the Senate.

But Marshall has a brasher presence on a variety of issues, ranging from opposing President Joe Biden's COVID-19 policies to his vote against certifying the 2020 election results.

Marshall is a frequent guest on conservative news stations Fox News and Newsmax and has been more active in introducing bills and resolutions than his fellow freshman senators.

Moran is certainly conservative — he supported an effort led by Marshall and others to undo Biden's COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirement for large employers and voted against an independent commission to examine the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"But the stylistic difference between Marshall and Moran is very pronounced," Beatty said.

For his part, Moran notes there are positives to having senators represent Kansas in slightly different ways

"He focuses on some things and I focus on some other things that are not always the same," he said. "But there is there's nothing that I've seen from him, and certainly, from my point of view, nothing but the desire to work together to take care of Kansans."

And he added that fighting policies from Biden's administration and the Senate Democratic majority he perceives as bad for Kansas is still "an important component of the job."

Still, Moran sits in a different position within the party.

While Marshall has promoted himself as a top Trump ally, Moran voted in alliance with Trump only 61% of the time between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the political news site Five Thirty Eight, 15% less often than the website's models would expect from a Kansas lawmaker.

Moran brushed aside any concern that Republican voters would find anything in his record to take umbrage with — a statement likely supported by Trump's endorsement.

"I certainly wouldn't be in the United States Senate if Republicans didn't find the way that I do things satisfactory," Moran said.

Navigating the tension between more moderate impulses and the political realities of a conservative state are nothing new for Moran.

In 2017, the senator notably defected from a bill his party proposed as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, then memorably descended on the tiny Rooks County town of Palco — national media in tow — to defend his decision.

And more recently, he was one of a group of Republican lawmakers tasked with helping to negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in August, though Moran eventually voted no on the measure, citing effects on the federal deficit.

“My efforts to reach a compromise were honest and sincere and I regret that we were unable to arrive at a bill I can support," Moran said in a statement at the time.

‘We have no idea where the party is going’

Two challengers have cropped up to challenge Moran: former Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland and Alta Vista resident Michael Soetaert, though only Soetaert has formally filed with state and federal authorities.

In a Facebook post announcing his candidacy, Holland criticized Moran for a "complete lack of leadership and courage" on a range of issues, perhaps illuminating Democrats' strategy for attempting to undercut the senator in the upcoming election.

"He has failed time and again  to stand up for Kansans in these unprecedented times, whether against Covid-19, despicable lies around our election integrity and the actions of extremist groups," Holland said. "Instead of leading or taking a stand, Moran hides in the shadows of others."

But with over $4.1 million in reserves and no obvious primary challenger, Moran seems well-positioned to deal with any slings and arrows he may catch.

"I think it's reflective of an understanding that Jerry Moran is committed to Kansas values," said Holdren, of the Kansas Farm Bureau. "I think people from both parties understand that. And it does come from a set of core beliefs and an understanding about what's important to the state and his commitment to be effective on those those issues."

The fight for control over the U.S. Senate is expected to be a bitter one, with close races expected in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Georgia and elsewhere.

While Kansas isn't expected to be one of those, the battle will ultimately dictate the power Moran and Marshall have come 2023.

Given uncertainty which remains about the path forward for the Republican Party nationally, Beatty noted it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. Senate drifts towards a style resembling that of Moran or remains entrenched in a more deeply partisan posture in the mold of the Trump wing of the party.

"We have no idea where the party's going," he said. "Is it a party that rewards Marshall's style, or? We have no idea.