Politics & Government

Is this the year Kansas will send a Democrat to the Senate?

WASHINGTON — Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since the Great Depression.

Through 13 presidents and five wars, Republicans have held its two seats for 76 unbroken years — the longest streak in the nation.

But today's political climate could weaken their grip.

"The Republican brand is really bad in many parts of the country, with Kansas being better than many, but still not good," said Scott Bensing, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It's not a top-tier race, but it's one of those where, should Democrats come into a bunch of money, it'd be a race."

The contest pits Pat Roberts — a Washington fixture — against Jim Slattery —a former congressman and now a Washington lobbyist:

In a year when "change" is the buzz word, neither sounds like the perfect candidate to match the political mood.

Roberts' longevity and ties to the Bush administration could hurt. He was a safe White House vote during its first five years. Only in the past three has his loyalty slipped slightly.

"Pat Roberts has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Bush-Cheney administration," Slattery said. "When all of the policies were put in place, Roberts voted for everything that was significant to the president. He voted for the war. He voted for this just reckless fiscal policy."

Roberts spokeswoman Molly Haase countered that "when the president is wrong, like on children's health care, the farm bill, expanded veterans' benefits and Medicare, Senator Roberts votes against him."

Roberts voted with the president 96 percent of the time during Bush's first term, according to figures from Congressional Quarterly. In 2006, Roberts' score dropped to 88 percent and to 81 percent in 2007.

Slattery's absence from Kansas since leaving office 14 years ago could brand him as out of touch. And his career as a lobbyist is an inviting target.

"I’m not a perfect candidate," Slattery acknowledged.

Even Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, rejected his $50 contribution because he does not accept money from lobbyists.

"If Obama won't even take Slattery's money, how's he going to stand next to him and urge Kansans to support him?" said Roberts’ pollster, Neil Newhouse.

Pollwise and moneywise, Roberts is ahead. He has raised $850,000 since April and has $3 million in the bank.

Slattery got in late. He has collected $500,000 this quarter and has $600,000 in the bank. He will need all that and more.

Roberts is an old-school conservative who is neither loud nor preachy. He has been on Capitol Hill since the 1960s as an aide, a congressman and a senator. Aviation and agriculture, the state’s main legislative menu, are his bread and butter.

As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the run-up to the war in Iraq, he was a central player in key debates over national security. Slattery intends to make it a campaign issue.

"The war was based on false, inaccurate, misleading intelligence data," he said. "It was that committee’s responsibility to get this information right. Pat has to be held to account for these terrible misjudgments."

Haase said the committee under Roberts "produced a unanimous bipartisan report documenting the failure of our intelligence network."

But it will take more than jabs at his national security bona fides to wobble Roberts. He has won nearly every House and Senate contest with at least 60 of the vote percent, including 2002 when the Democrats put no candidate up against him.

That was the same year Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won the Kansas governor's race, thanks to a lot of Roberts Republicans. Upset over the state GOP's lurch to the right, many voted Democratic.

"If you go walking around the state and talk to old-line Republicans, many of whom abandoned the party in races where Sebelius was a candidate, a lot would say to you, 'We like Pat Roberts,' ” said Joe Aistrup, chairman of the Political Science Department at Kansas State University.

The state is not among the key Senate battlegrounds this year, like Minnesota or New Hampshire, but Democrats say it eventually could be, given the electricity created by Obama and a public weary of war, worried about the economy and soured on President Bush.

Howard Bauleke, a former congressional aide, said Slattery thought the race looked hopeless before he saw Obama's effect.

"He took a second look and decided if lightning is going to strike this year, it'd be good a year to stand outside," said Bauleke, now a top aide to Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas.

He has an "uphill struggle," according to Kansas GOP Chairman Kris Kobach. Name recognition is a big obstacle.

Slattery represented the 2nd Congressional District for 12 years. That was more than a decade ago. Even if those voters remember him, have voters in Dodge City, Colby, even Wichita heard of him?

Another hurdle will be finding the right issues. Slattery will flog the war, the economy and energy. Roberts' issues are similar, with the addition of affordable health care.

Both campaigns exude confidence, though Slattery's is tempered by history.

"Roberts has been there since we put people on the moon," said Kansas Democratic Chairman Larry Gates. "It's tough, no one would deny that. Impossible? Absolutely not."

Bensing of the Republican senatorial committee is taking no chances.

"We have no safe seats right now," he said. "In a normal election year, we would not be concerned at all. But those are the cards we’re dealt. We’re not taking any states for granted."