State senate race starts as a sprint

While the 2010 election season has been a marathon for candidates and voters alike, the unexpected race to fill the District 17 seat vacated by Jim Barnett in the Kansas Senate has become a 100-meter dash for the two candidates involved.

Barnett, a longtime Emporia resident, announced Sept. 8 that he would resign the seat Oct. 1 to pursue a medical position in Topeka. By the middle of September, the central committees for Republi?cans and Democrats in the district picked two Emporia men to carry the standard for their respective parties in the Nov. 2 special election.

Because Barnett is a Republi?can, GOP candidate Jeff Long?bine was expected to be appointed this week to temporarily fill Barnett?s seat. Longbine will then be on the Nov. 2 ballot to fill the remaining two years of the term.

Jerry Karr, who filled the Senate seat for District 17 from 1981 to 1998, was selected by the Democratic committee to be the party?s candidate.

Prominent in Lyon County

Both men are well-known in Emporia and Lyon County, which is the most populous area of a district that covers all or part of seven counties, including most of Marion County.

Longbine is the principal owner of an auto dealership in Emporia. He?s been mayor of the city since 2008 and a city commissioner since 2007. He was named ?Citizen of the Year? by the Emporia Gazette in 2007.

After leaving the Legislature, Karr was appointed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to co-chair the 2004 Wind Energy Task Force. In 2007 he represented the Emporia area with the development of Kansas Inc.?s five-year economic development strategic plan for the state.

Currently, Karr is serving on the Kansas Commission on Rural Policy, a committee established by the Kansas Legislature to evaluate rural development throughout the state.

Name recognition here

In a truncated campaign season, both candidates are focusing on enhancing name recog?ni?tion beyond their home base.

?I think I?ve been to Marion County four times now in the last two and a half weeks,? Longbine said. ?I was there for the Old Settler?s Day parade and got an opportunity to meet a lot of people that day.

?Mainly, it?s just trying to get over there as much as I can,? he added. ?The district includes parts of seven counties, and on such a short race we?re trying to get somewhere every day.?

Karr said his previous tenure in the Senate may give him a slight edge in name recognition in the outlying regions of the district.

?What we?ve had to do is reach back and find as many friends and volunteers as we could find so we could get the word out,? Karr said.

?It?s really been difficult when you get as far west as Hills?boro, or as far east as Melvern,? he added. ?They?re not even aware that (Barnett?s) resignation has occurred in some cases, unfortunately. It happened so quickly.?

Karr said he was part of the Democratic organization in Lyon County.

?We were focusing on state?wide races and we really hadn?t thought much about local races until suddenly this event happened,? he said, referring to Barnett?s resignation. ?We have been able to get a great deal of support from volunteers.?

Broader factors

Both candidates see public education, economic development and efficiency in state government as central issues in the race.

Because the short campaign will make it difficult for the two candidates to stake out clear differences in their approaches, they recognize party loyalty may become a factor by default.

Regional discontent with the present course in Washing?ton, D.C., may be a factor, too.

?The national groundswell (against President Obama and the Democratic Congress) winds well for any republican in this campaign season,? Longbine said. ?Not being a seasoned politician, though, I?m much more concerned about the 17th District.

?The Republicans are the dominant party in the 17th District, and I think I represent Republican values very, very well.?

Karr said, ?Certainly, this is not the easy year to run on coattails at the national level?that?s a reality.

?The good news from the Kansas perspective,? he added, ?is that Kansas Democrats do have some equality candidates for attorney general, governor and on down the list. That?s a good situation.

?But some people are still focused on Washington and not on the reality that we?re not going to Washington to address issues that they perceive to be unhappy about.

?The reality is, even in the 17th District, there are people who are still needing jobs,? Karr said. ?Jobs and the economic vitality of the district is still a very important issue.?

Karr?s experience

How Karr?s previous stint in the Kansas Senate will affect the vote is open for speculation by both candidates.

?Jerry has represented this district in the past, but he?s been gone for 13 or 14 years,? Long?bine said. ?I think there?s been a lot of change in Kansas and a lot of change in the 17th District in those years.

?I hope people will realize that, and a fresh face and a new voice in Topeka is maybe what we need.?

Karr said his experience should give him a leg up in terms of making an immediate impact in Topeka because he knows how the system functions.

Though the national economic situation has changed since he left office, Karr said the state did face recessions in the mid-1980s and early ?90s, forcing state government to respond to budget challenges.

?As I left office, the state of Kansas and the national scene was very positive as far as economics,? Karr said. ?It has drifted downward as a lot of things have happened.

?I?m promoting the concept that because I have been through a couple of these, and have had to deal with budgets that were really tough, we did work in a bipartisan manner to resolve the economic downturns and avoided the complete collapse of the school finance formula in the ?90s.

?These things are going to be issues we?re going to address, regardless who?s elected governor or any other office,? he added. ?I hope I can bring some experience on the ground immediately for this position and represent the 17th District.?

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