Kansas population map (2010 census, image: JimIrwin/wikimedia)

The Kansas caucuses are today (better bring your state-issued photo ID if you want to participate), and to the disappointment of Governor Sam Brownback, the media is not going wild. No throngs of satellite trucks surrounding the candidates, and no crush of speculation about who will walk away with throngs of delegates and momentum going into whatever follows.

And no publicity for his state and his policies.

Poor Sam.

Brownback was an early backer of Rick Perry, and since then has not endorsed any other candidate. He appeared earlier this week alongside both Santorum and Paul, but Gingrich bailed on Kansas to focus on the south (surprise, surprise), and Romney decided not to come visit at all. Brownback is trying to stay above the fray, and used his appearances at the candidate events to tout all that he and the GOP are doing to move Kansas in a more conservative direction, hoping to bring more business to Kansas through tax breaks, cutting education spending, allowing gun owners with concealed firearms permits broader access to public buildings, clamping down on clinics that provide abortion services through unreasonable building code changes, and pushing for ever more strict laws to clamp down on the vote fraud epidemic that isn’t sweeping the state.

[My favorite part of the 2010 Kansas GOP platform [pdf] called for smaller, less intrusive government, lower govt spending, and fewer entitlement programs on the one hand, *and* “the option of firearms training in federal programs serving senior citizens and women” on the other. By all means, let’s turn the Women, Infants, and Children program into Women, Infants, Children, and Guns. “Here’s your WIC food basket. Would you like some .45 cartridges to go with that?” But I digress.]

Another reason the media aren’t thronging to the state is perhaps because the race isn’t seen to be close. As Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capital-Journal put it, the caucuses are Santorum’s to lose. Ron Paul has been getting his usual libertarian crowd, but doesn’t appear to be catching on much beyond them. Gingrich . . . never mind. Which leaves it at Romney vs Santorum.

Romney got the endorsement of Bob Dole, which will gain him exactly zero votes outside of the folks who love the GOP establishment — people he already had in his camp anyway. His biggest argument is that he’s more electable, and his folks have been pushing that hard across the state. But I don’t think that will cut it in Kansas in 2012.

Kansas Republicans like Ol’ Bob, but view him as an icon in a museum and not a present force in the party. For the last decade at least, the Kansas GOP has been in full purity mode, and looks askance at those they view as ideologically suspect. Like Romney. For folks like these, winning isn’t everything — purity is.

Santorum, for his part, is looking for his purity to get him the win. He’s hoping not just for a win, but a big win — and a win that will help him counter the “Santorum is losing the Catholic vote to Romney” meme that has been percolating this past week.

Dan Balz and Scott Clement ask in today’s Washington Post why Santorum is losing the support of Catholics to Romney, but never really get to an answer other than to say at the very end that Romney may be winning Catholics because of economic issues. They also point to a divide among Catholic voters based on income — Romney gets the support of rich Catholics; Santorum the not-rich.

But a Shira Schoenberg story in the Boston Globe dug into the question much more fully earlier in the week, and teased out much more at work among the Catholic electorate. She noted Santorum’s comments about JFK’s freedom of religion speech making him almost throw up — not a good way to endear yourself to Catholic voters who revere JFK — and also points to the much larger issue of what constitutes Catholic identity:

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said there is no Catholic bloc today.

Doyle said that many older Catholics identify with the Democratic Party, and that nonpracticing Catholics tend to be socially liberal. He said Santorum appeals to some Catholics who oppose abortion rights. But Gingrich appeals to the same group, and Romney has been endorsed by prominent Catholics, including Flynn and four other former US ambassadors to the Vatican.

The end of the piece, however, reveals the biggest divide:

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights group, said Catholic voters’ priorities are similar to those of other Americans: a focus on economic, not social, issues.

“Catholic voters show little interest in values issues to help them decide who should be the next president,’’ O’Brien said. “Catholic voters want the president to focus on moving the economy, keeping the country safe from terrorism.’’

O’Brien said while Santorum’s socially conservative views may reflect Catholic leadership, they do not necessarily reflect those of Catholics in general.

“Catholic voters, when it comes to voting day, don’t walk in lockstep with bishops,’’ O’Brien said.

You can say that again. See “contraception” and “divorce and remarriage.”

But the Catholics in Kansas tend toward the conservative end of things, loving their purity in all things, and Santorum’s JFK comment will be embraced by these more conservative Catholics, of which there are many in Kansas. Indeed, it is the populist shorter version of what Philadelphia’s new archbishop Charles Chaput said in March 2010. In the introduction to his speech, Chaput said JFK wasn’t just “wrong” about his faith, but caused profound damage to the nation that we’re still paying for fifty years later.

The segment of Catholics that eat this up are the Catholics that Santorum appeals to. They love their bishops, love their new and at times unintelligible translation of the mass, report their priests to the bishop for deviating from the new translation, and in everything else you can think of, they love their purity. As they look at the GOP candidates, it is clear that more than the thrice-married Gingrich, the religiously-suspect and apparent flip-flopper Romney, and the oddball Paul, Rick Santorum is Their Guy.

These Catholics are a minority in the US church, but they’re more numerous in Kansas — and in a caucus state like Kansas, you can be sure that they’ll turn out.