Elections

In Kansas, it’s Sen. Pat Roberts’ race to lose – and he might

U.S. Senate Independent candidate Greg Orman, left, shakes hands with Sen. Pat Roberts following their debate at the KSN television studio Oct. 15, 2014 in Wichita, Kan.
U.S. Senate Independent candidate Greg Orman, left, shakes hands with Sen. Pat Roberts following their debate at the KSN television studio Oct. 15, 2014 in Wichita, Kan. MCT

For more than three decades, Pat Roberts had an easy time winning elections to Congress from Kansas, always winning by landslide margins. Now the Republican senator is in very real danger of losing and he may have only himself to blame.

First, after years avoiding potentially damaging fights within the Kansas GOP, he also finds himself with no real allies. Second, he started to look out of touch with the folks in his state, caught in a flap over whether he still calls Kansas his home. And now locked in a surprisingly tough fight with a Democrat-turned-independent, he’s hitting back in ways that might help him win but also risk turning off voters.

“After watching the debate the other night, I just thought he was not a very nice person,” said Pat Coyer, a 77-year-old Republican from Wichita who said she’d always voted for Roberts but planned now to vote for independent challenger Greg Orman.

“This is Roberts’ race to lose,” said Mark Peterson, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka. “And he just has not done a good job of repairing the damage that’s been done.”

Judging by the historical landscape, Roberts should be coasting. Kansas has sent only Republicans to the Senate since the 1930s. It’s voted Republican in every presidential election since 1936, with the sole exception of 1964. And it’s sent Roberts to Congress reliably since his first election to the House of Representatives in 1980 and his first election to the Senate in 1996.

But with a handful of days left before Election Day, Roberts, 78, finds himself deadlocked with Orman. A loss not only would end Roberts’ career but also jeopardize his party’s hopes of winning back control of the Senate.

Roberts is fighting in the final days to make the contest a referendum on Democrats in Washington, notably President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Roberts warns repeatedly that Orman is a Democrat in disguise who’d be a rubber stamp for Obama. And Roberts says re-electing him would help the Republicans take control of the Senate and serve as a check on Obama in the final two years of his presidency.

“This race is about a lot more than Pat Roberts. It’s about Republicans controlling the Senate,” said Corry Bliss, who took over as the manager of Roberts’ faltering campaign last month.

Yet it’s Kansas that’s making Roberts vulnerable.

First, the senator spent years largely staying above the fray while warring factions of his party struggled for control in the state. This year, however, he moved right to stave off a primary challenge and ended up alienating some moderates.

“The internal rumblings of the Kansas Republican Party have finally bit him,” said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University and a former Republican strategist. “By never taking a side, he never angered one or the other side, but he also developed no allies. And now that he needs allies, he doesn’t have them.”

Roberts’ woes have coincided with a tough re-election fight for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, feeding anti-incumbent turnout.

“Had he done this in 2008, he would have gone nowhere. . . . But because this anti-incumbency wave is hitting right now, he’s got a message that really, really locks into those folks,” Rackaway said.

At the same time, The New York Times reported this year that Roberts’ legal residence in Kansas was at the home of a supporter on a golf course. Roberts, who owns a home in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., said he paid rent in Kansas and joked that he had full access to the recliner, a gaffe that’s continued to haunt him.

Anna Woods, a 34-year-old homemaker who attended an Orman rally in Topeka, said she wanted to elect “someone who’s a little more connected to Kansas.”

Orman, who grew up in Minnesota and has the accent to prove it, has pressed the issue less than Roberts’ primary challenger did but has benefited from the perception that the senator has lost touch with Kansas.

“I think Sen. Roberts took this race and took the Kansas voters for granted. I think he expected to win the Republican primary, go home to Virginia, show back up here on Nov. 3, get a good night’s rest and pose for the cameras the day he voted,” Orman said in a phone interview. “I don’t think he thought he had to earn our vote.”

Even then Roberts seemed safe, as long as he faced an opposition divided between Democrat Chad Taylor and independent Orman.

But Taylor dropped out of the race, and Orman, a 45-year-old multimillionaire investor from Olathe, saw his support double.

With new campaign help, and a sense of danger, Roberts went on the attack to define Orman.

The Roberts campaign has tried to paint Orman, whose lucrative investments range from real estate to biotech, as an unscrupulous businessman, relentlessly attacking him over connections to Rajat Gupta, a convicted insider trader.

During a speech in Overland Park, Roberts commented that Orman had the support of the “New York political mafia,” referring to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and to Jonathan Soros, the son of liberal billionaire George Soros, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Orman. “Don’t write that down,” he said, pointing to the lone reporter among the crowd of 40 business leaders.

When asked to say something nice about Orman in their final debate, Roberts said his opponent was a nice dresser, then mentioned that he admired Orman’s wealth but had questions about how he got it.

Orman said the attacks proved his argument that Washington had become too partisan.

“I don’t think we’ve heard a single constructive thing about what he’s going to do positively when he gets back there. His message to voters is, ‘Hold your nose and vote for me,’ ” Orman said at an event at the University of Kansas.

Roberts denied his campaign has been negative. “There’s a difference between negative campaigning and setting the record straight,” he said at a campaign event as one of his staffers demanded an end to the brief interview.

“I think he also needs to talk more about what he’s actually done for our state, because obviously you can’t stay in that seat without delivering for your state,” said state Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, who praised Roberts’ work on agricultural issues and noted that he’s poised to become the chairman of the Agriculture Committee if Republicans take the Senate.

“That would be huge for economic development for our state. We need to have that kind of a voice in the Senate,” Lynn said.

Orman hasn’t committed to caucusing with either party, saying he’ll wait until he sees which party has the majority.

National Democrats have pinned their hopes of keeping the Senate on his victory, while Republicans have attacked him over his support for abortion rights and past campaign contributions to Democrats.

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