Ritual door-to-door salesmanship is a feature of the Kansas Senate primary blockbuster between veteran politicians Vicki Schmidt and Joe Patton.
Both candidates have endured blistering heat while walking neighborhoods as the clock spins toward the Aug. 7 demise of political life for one of these Topeka Republicans.
Characterization of Schmidt, the incumbent senator, and Patton, the House member-turned-challenger, differs depending on the messenger ringing doorbells in southwest Topeka and southern Wabaunsee County.
Schmidt, a pharmacist, prefers to be portrayed as a pragmatic, persistent advocate for Kansas public education and safety net programs for the elderly and disabled. Her opponent suggests she is a patsy for the quick-to-raise-taxes crowd.
"She has been voting for bills, in my opinion, the tax-and-spend coalition have been advocating that kill jobs," Patton said.
Patton, a lawyer, wants voters to view him as an anti-abortion stalwart and tax reformer. His opponent believes he is liable to be a robotic ideologue for the GOP's most conservative realm.
"If people are going to be a rubber stamp, I don't know why they should run," Schmidt said.
This clash of ideas points to a broader contest within the Kansas Republican Party. Moderate GOP senators control leadership jobs in the Senate, while the right holds sway in the House and governor's office. If conservatives win a few more Senate seats in 2012, they will dominate the entire legislative arena.
Schmidt, the Senate's assistant majority leader, defeated Patton in a GOP primary eight years ago on her way to winning the Senate seat. She has been targeted for defeat in 2012 by the Kansas Chamber and other allies of Gov. Sam Brownback. Patton, elected to the House in 2006, is expected to benefit from heavy third-party spending aimed at weakening Schmidt's incumbency advantage.
Realignment of legislative boundaries altered demographics of the 20th District contest. The district was modified by addition of 2,000 voters in Wabaunsee County and by trimming of territory in Shawnee County.
Patton said he was working to meet potential new constituents in areas of the new Senate district sitting outside his old House district.
"The first thing they ask me: What is your National Rifle Association rating?" Patton said. "I say A. My opponent's is an F."
Schmidt won't be mistaken for a gunslinger on her door-to-door sweeps, but points prospective voters to her advocacy for Washburn University. In 2011, the House passed a bill, with Patton's blessing, to slash the Topeka university's budget about $5 million. The action was blocked by the Senate.
"He voted for that bill to cut Washburn's funding 50 percent," Schmidt said. "The Senate never considered decreasing Washburn's budget."
Patton said a more important consideration was the candidates' approach to tax policy. He faulted Schmidt for voting in 2010 for a three-year, 1-cent increase in the statewide sales tax. It raised more than $350 million annually for the state and followed $1 billion in budget cuts.
In opposing the sales tax hike, Patton said the scheduled rollback in 2013 would never occur.
"It's like a junkie with cocaine," he predicted. "He won't be able to cut the habit."
However, it was Brownback who recommended in January the higher sales tax be made permanent.
Schmidt opposed extension of the higher sales tax.
"I voted to allow the sunset to remain," she said. "That was a contract I made with the voters."
The 2012 Legislature's main tax reform bill, supported by Patton and Schmidt, was signed by the governor. The measure reduces individual income tax rates and eliminates nonwage income taxes for thousands of business owners.
There is anxiety, frequently expressed by Democrats, the new law will strangle the state's revenue stream and prompt deficits of $2.5 billion by 2018.
Patton disputes the dark scenario, but believes one or two years of modest deficits can be handled by reducing wasteful spending. Structural revision of tax policy will eventually spur job creation and strengthen the state's financial position, he said.
It is the type of reform that produces real expansion of employment, Patton said, who disputes Schmidt's claim of helping to generate 100,000 jobs as a senator.
"It's just totally not credible," he said. "Topeka has lost 2,000 jobs."
During Senate debate on tax reform, Schmidt offered an amendment that preserved the state's exemption for homeowner mortgage interest and deduction for charitable contributions.
"Homeownership is a source of pride for many Kansans," Schmidt said. "Penalizing homeowners and driving up our property taxes is not the answer."
The candidates' perspective on abortion presents a clear contrast.
Patton was among a handful of people who founded Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion lobbying group.
"We felt like it was important to restrict abortion because it's the taking of a human life," Patton said.
Schmidt's voting record tracks more closely with the pro-choice contingent.
Schmidt said the state had to press ahead with building a stronger K-12 public school system, which endured a series of budget cuts before the Legislature increased funding this year by $40 million.
"I've always been a supporter of the school system," she said. "We need to make sure that we have strong schools so that our kids have the skills necessary to enter the work force, establish themselves and start their families when they are ready."
Patton said Kansas' public schools had an obligation to become more efficient with resources provided by local and state taxpayers. He complained that more districts didn't spend down reserve accounts during the recession.
Patton vowed, if elected to the Senate, to seek an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to block implementation of federal health insurance reform. Schmidt and Patton voted for a bill along these lines, but Patton believes a constitutional amendment might have more bite. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled the law valid under the U.S. Constitution.
"At the very least," he said, "we can raise the issue again."
On reform of the state's Medicaid program for the poor, elderly and disabled, Schmidt said she would renew advocacy for creation of a legislative committee to oversee Brownback's conversion of the $2.8 billion program to a managed-care model handled by three insurance companies.
"It's just needed when we're talking about the money and changes," Schmidt said.