Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran has a lot riding on the results of the Senate race now raging in his home state, even though he’s not the one up for re-election.
That would be Moran’s fellow Republican senator from Kansas, Pat Roberts, who is in the midst of a pitched battle for his political life. Most polls show incumbent Roberts trailing independent challenger Greg Orman.
Moran doesn’t face voters again until 2016, but as the party leader in charge of the GOP’s national effort to win control of the U.S. Senate, he is deeply invested in a Roberts victory.
Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats for the first time since 2007. If a loss by Roberts in Kansas were to cost the GOP the Senate majority, it would look worse for Moran than if Republicans lost by a point in other hotly contested races, such as in Alaska or Louisiana, analysts say.
“It’s like losing a game on your home field, the place where you should have the advantage,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, which provides nonpartisan analysis of U.S. elections.
Moran, 60, serves as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm that’s tasked with electing Republicans to the Senate. In an interview Thursday, Moran said he has a personal interest in Roberts’ fate, but the Kansas contest is just one of many races he’s focused on in his role as committee chairman.
“He’s my friend,” Moran said of Roberts. “We’ve been together in Congress and we’ve worked side by side, so I personally care a lot about him. With my (party leadership) hat, I’m interested in lots of candidates in races across the country, and we will be trying to help all of them succeed. And that’s true of Sen. Roberts, but that’s also true of 13, 14 other candidates.”
Known as a risk-averse politician, Moran’s ascension to the high-profile campaign committee chairmanship in 2012 surprised many of his colleagues. But his gamble was reasonable: Republicans’ chances of flipping the Senate looked good because Democrats had to defend more seats than the GOP did. The odds have gotten even better since, with five more Democratic senators announcing their retirements and President Barack Obama’s approval ratings at record lows.
“There’s the expectation that the Republicans are in a good position to take the majority, and if they fall short there are going to be a lot of people on his side of the aisle who are going to be disappointed with him – that comes with the territory when you are NRSC chairman,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
A home-state loss for Moran would not only be embarrassing, but historic. No Senate campaign committee chairman has overseen the loss of a home-state colleague since 1972, more than 40 years ago.
“The problem for Jerry is that things aren’t looking too good, and if he goes to the mat for Roberts and Roberts loses his seat, and if he also loses the Senate, Moran looks like a double loser,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “You can just see the day-after editorial and the second-guessing among the Republican senators.”
Moran now is leveraging both his committee and his own reputation in Kansas to help Roberts. He appeared with him at two campaign events in August and plans on joining his 78-year-old colleague on a bus tour next week. Moran said he’s also encouraging Kansans to vote for Roberts when meeting with them on his own visits back home.
So far, his committee hasn’t provided any funds to Roberts, although Moran’s leadership PAC has donated $10,000 to his colleague’s campaign. But money doesn’t appear to be Roberts’ problem. He has amassed a war chest of more than $4 million, far outstripping Orman’s $671,322.
Instead, the committee’s aid appears to have come in the form of strategic advice and manpower.
During the primary, the committee dispatched volunteers and staff to Kansas to knock on doors and make phone calls for Roberts in his battle against tea party challenger Milton Wolf. Roberts pulled out a win, 48 percent to 41 percent. It was closer than many expected, and it soon became clear that Roberts wasn’t home free.
A few weeks later, the withdrawal of Democratic candidate Chad Taylor unexpectedly threw the Roberts campaign into crisis mode. Without Taylor to split the opposition vote, Roberts suddenly was in real danger of losing to Orman. Moran’s committee sent two top operatives to the rescue.
Seasoned GOP strategist Chris LaCivita, a longtime consultant to the committee, flew to Kansas to serve as Roberts’ new senior adviser. Corry Bliss, another Republican consultant with a reputation for running hard-driving campaigns, replaced Roberts’ close friend and confidant, Leroy Towns, as campaign manager.
If this tactical move caused any awkwardness for Moran – a freshman senator who typically would be expected to defer to his more senior colleague – he doesn’t acknowledge it.
Moran said his committee consults and advises Republican candidates across the country, and that it was Roberts’ own choice to change his campaign staff, not a dictate from Washington.
“Sen. Roberts is the one who should have and did make the decision of who should be involved in his campaign,” Moran said.
One potential pitfall for Moran as he tries to balance his dual roles of Kansas lawmaker and national party leader is that he risks being tagged as a Washington insider, said Ken Ciboski, a political science professor at Wichita State University.
“When you’re in a leadership position you carry the water for the party,” Ciboski said. “These days there’s a very strong anti-incumbency feeling on a lot of these races, and Sen. Moran is putting his career on the line.”
Far-right activists in Kansas already are grumbling about what they see as Moran’s role in helping incumbent Republican senators defeat tea party candidates in primaries in Kansas, Georgia and Mississippi.
Some are calling for a primary challenge against Moran in 2016.
“Maybe Milton Wolf would throw his hat in again,” said Craig Gabel, president of Kansans for Liberty, a grassroots coalition of tea party and ultraconservative groups across the state.
Moran says he’s not concerned about his own political career at this point. His goal is a functional Senate.
“Regardless of your position – Republican or Democrat – this Senate is dysfunctional the way it’s led today, and it’s important that the change of leadership occur,” Moran said, “and that can only happen if the Republicans are in the majority.”