Mitt Romney is expected to roll up an easy victory in Republican-leaning Kansas, while Democrats contemplate how much worse President Barack Obama's showing will be than it was four years ago.
The state has been largely ignored in the presidential race ahead of the Nov. 6 election, with both major parties assuming from the outset that its six electoral votes will go to Romney, the GOP nominee and a former Massachusetts governor. Obama energized many fellow Democrats four years ago and captured nearly 42 percent of the vote, the best result for a Democratic candidate in 20 years.
Since Obama's election, conservative Kansas Republicans have made big strides by playing off the president and the federal health care overhaul that he championed. The rise of the tea party movement has also helped push the state's politics hard to the right.
Obama also appears to have lost the support of some Kansans who embraced his message of change four years ago but remain frustrated with the economy. Such voters include Jim and Joann Mayfield, 58-year-old Topeka residents who recently stopped by the Pizza Parlor for $1 taco and tostadas in the working-class Oakland neighborhood, where yards are dotted with signs for Democratic candidates, but none for Obama are visible.
Jim Mayfield lost his job as a cabinet maker in March 2011, while Joann is retiring from her job as a Hallmark Cards Inc. press operator ahead of the company's shutdown of its Topeka manufacturing plant. She's backing Romney; he's undecided but leaning toward the GOP nominee. Both voted for Obama in 2008 and said the president "came into a mess."
"I was hoping that he would be our miracle man," Joann Mayfield said of Obama. "I don't think he's an economy person. We need jobs for everybody."
The last Democrat to carry Kansas was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and since then, the party's presidential nominees have averaged about 37 percent of the vote. The late George McGovern was the last Democrat to capture less than 30 percent of the vote in Kansas, in 1972.
Obama traveled to Osawatomie, about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, in December 2011 to give a major speech on economic policy. This week, Gov. Sam Brownback visited five cities in northeast Ohio to campaign for Romney. But officials in the state GOP and Democratic Party acknowledge that the campaign has been most active for months in shuttling supporters of either candidate to the battleground states of Colorado and Iowa.
Former Gov. John Carlin, a Democrat who held the office from 1979 to 1987, said the low visibility of the campaign will hurt Obama, just as it hurt Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Carter received nearly 45 percent of the vote in 1976, the best showing of any Democrat after Johnson, but saw his percentage fall to 33 percent four years later. Carlin noted that just as Obama did in 2008, Carter emerged from a competitive nominating contest in 1976.
Page 2 of 2 - "He came to Kansas and worked Kansas," said Carlin, now a visiting professor of political science at Kansas State University. "Democrats felt like they were part of the race."
But Obama also has become a central figure in Kansas campaigns for conservative Republicans. In 2010, the year the federal health care law passed, Brownback led the GOP's first sweep of all statewide and congressional races on the ballot since Johnson's year, 1964, and Republicans expanded their legislative majorities.
This year, Brownback's allies ousted moderate GOP state senators in August primary races, partly by suggesting the incumbents were too soft in their opposition to the federal health care law and its mandate that most individuals buy health insurance, starting in 2014. Conservatives are targeting incumbent Democratic legislators by tying them to Obama.
"It's reasonable to predict that Romney will pass the 60 percent mark," said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican and former law professor who's served as an informal adviser to the Romney campaign on immigration issues. "In 2008, we didn't have an exact picture of what Obamacare would look like."
Retiring Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a conservative Hutchinson Republican who's also CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said Romney's clear victory in the first presidential debate earlier this month energized Kansas supporters. O'Neal acknowledged some Republicans feared apathy in the face of Romney's sure victory in the Sunflower State.
"We didn't want people to stay at home saying, 'Romney doesn't need my vote,'" O'Neal said.
Voter registration figures show a shift in Kansas away from the Democratic Party since Obama took office. The number of Republicans has grown since 2008, as has the number of voters with no affiliation. The number of Democrats has declined by about 45,000, dropping the party to about 25 percent of the state's 1.74 million registered voters, a smaller percentage than unaffiliated voters.
Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he's expecting Obama to receive roughly 35 percent of the vote in Kansas this year.
"Republicans in Kansas have been kicking him around for four years," Davis said.