WICHITA, Kan. — There is no escaping abortion politics in Wichita, where the race between two Republicans for district attorney could come down to who voters believe is a stronger opponent. The campaign highlights how the debate has changed since an activist gunned down one of the country's few remaining late-term abortion providers in 2009.
Wichita became a focal point of the national fight over abortion rights early on with mass protests and the unsuccessful prosecution of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. Today, the city no longer has an abortion clinic, and Republicans who control the governor's office and state Legislature have enacted even tighter restrictions on those that exist elsewhere in the state.
The abortion rights supporter who served as Wichita's top prosecutor for 24 years, Nola Foulston, is leaving office with no Democrat running to replace her. That means whoever wins Tuesday's Republican primary essentially wins the job.
Kevin O'Connor, a former assistant district attorney in Wichita who now works as a special prosecutor for the Kansas attorney general's office, is running against deputy district attorney Marc Bennett. O'Connor has support from Kansans for Life and other high-profile anti-abortion activists, while Bennett has the perhaps too-visible support of his boss.
To understand why that's a liability in this race, it's important to note that Scott Roeder — the abortion opponent serving a life sentence for killing Tiller — once told The Associated Press that he believed the doctor would never be brought to justice as long as Foulston was in office.
The district attorney had refused to allow then-Attorney General Phill Kline to prosecute Tiller in her jurisdiction, resulting in a judge dismissing charges that the doctor had performed illegal late-term abortions. Tiller was later acquitted of misdemeanor charges that he failed to get a second opinion from an independent doctor before performing late-term abortions. Roeder killed the doctor weeks after the jury's verdict.
While Foulston has insisted she was simply upholding the law, many abortion opponents blame her for derailing Kline's prosecution and, ultimately, for Tiller's death.
"If Nola Foulston had done her job with George Tiller, he would still be alive today," said Troy Newman, president of Wichita-based Operation Rescue.
Newman recently paid for automated calls to more than 30,000 voters urging them to support O'Connor and accusing Foulston of trying to hand-pick her successor by getting "fat cat" Democrats to give Bennett money.
Campaign finance reports show Bennett has outspent O'Connor by more than 2-to-1, and nearly 18 percent of Bennett's donations came from individuals and companies who gave to Foulston's campaign in 2008.
But Bennett said the accusations were unfair and he is not aware of any fundraising Foulston has done on his behalf.
"I think there has been a real effort to try to turn this into a Kevin vs. Nola campaign," Bennett said. "Nola is not running."
O'Connor said his campaign has asked Newman to stop the automated calls, but he's also made Foulston an issue in the campaign by providing the first behind-the-scenes glimpse at what went on in her office during the Tiller case.
O'Connor told the AP the district attorney's office reviewed Kline's case against Tiller after it was dismissed to look for possible new charges. He said he recommended Tiller be prosecuted for failing to get a second opinion, and Foulston initially asked him to handle the prosecution.
But she later handed the case to Kline's successor, a Democrat, he said. O'Connor criticized the attorney general's office for its handling of the case, saying it is rare for prosecutors to call only one witness for a jury trial.
Julie Burkhart, a former Tiller employee and founder of the abortion-rights group Trust Women, is raising funds to open an abortion clinic in Wichita, where services have not been openly provided since Tiller was murdered. She is worried about anti-abortion groups backing O'Connor.
"There is always that opportunity for there to be another facility and the bottom line is we need people who are not going to bring their own rigid ideology into elected office," Burkhart said.
O'Connor said he is proud of his conservative values and believes it's important for voters to know how he makes decisions. That said, he added that as a prosecutor he has to follow the law, which allows abortions.
"I don't know why somebody would be worried about what I believe or how I think," O'Connor said. "They should be worried if they are going to break the law. But I am not going to apologize for what I think and what I believe."
Bennett said he doesn't see abortion as something relevant to the district attorney's job.
"In my personal life, I am pro-life, but I will not act as though electing me in that role will somehow change the national abortion debate or that issue," Bennett said. "I will follow the law, period."
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company