Why Kansas's Senate Seat Is No Sure Thing for Republicans

Sen. Pat Roberts's GOP primary not only damaged him, it may have moved him too far from the moderate Republicans his independent general-election opponent could attract.

In more than three decades in office, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts has been a level-headed compromiser, known for working across the aisle to solve problems and authoring multiple farm bills to benefit of agriculture-heavy Kansas. But in the past few years, girding himself for a primary challenge, Roberts has changed his tune. He's ratcheted up his conservative vote ratings, aligned himself with firebrands like Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, and, this year, didn't even vote for the latest farm bill.

And though Roberts survived his August primary against radiologist Milton Wolf, albeit by a closer margin than he would have liked, the maneuvers he made to win renomination (and the damage he suffered) could still hurt him in November, even in a reliably Republican state, thanks to the unusual matchup Roberts faces. Unlike his red-state Senate colleagues, most of whom defeated their primary challengers to face long-shot Democrats in the general election, Roberts will now go one-on-one against a well-funded, fiscally conservative independent candidate—exactly the type who could appeal to elements of Kansas's famously fractured Republican Party, make the general election interesting, and potentially affect who controls the Senate in 2015.

Democratic nominee Chad Taylor withdrew from the race Wednesday, setting up the unusual Republican-versus-independent matchup between the incumbent Republican and Greg Orman, a former business executive. It's a race some in the state say will be more competitive than Roberts's primary, which he won by 48 percent to 41 percent over Wolf in August.

The GOP primary did a lot to set the situation up. While battling Wolf, Roberts suffered considerable damage from attacks on his residency and his lengthy tenure in D.C. Roberts doesn't actually live in Kansas, according to The New York Times, listing his voting address in the state to a home owned by a pair of political donors and leasing out the property he does own to tenants. He spends most of his time at his home in Alexandria, Va. Roberts accidentally underscored that in a well-publicized radio interview, unintentionally saying he comes home every time he has a "challenger," instead of every time he has a "chance." There hasn't been any public live-caller polling in Kansas this year, but a mid-August robo-poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Roberts with a desperately low 27 percent approval rating after the primary.

At the same time, a number of Kansas Republicans have expressed an appetite for moderates like Orman, who fared well in a then-hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Roberts in the same August poll. The state's high-profile governor's race has highlighted the divide among Kansas Republicans, with a number of moderates endorsing the Democrat against GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, and Congress's unpopularity has increased the demand for fresh blood. Kansas may be a red state, but there are enough Democrats and independents that significant fracturing among Republicans in the general election would put Roberts in dire straits.

As Roberts slogged through his tough primary this summer, Orman accounted for about every third ad run on TV with appeals to the middle, calling on voters to stop the partisan "tug-o-war" and send him to Washington instead. The message stood out in between exhausting attacks flying at Roberts and Wolf.

"I think the vast majority of Kansans are where I am," Orman, who's been a registered Democrat and a registered Republican in the past, said in an interview. "I think they're fiscally responsible, they're socially more tolerant, and they're looking for candidate who are problem-solvers."

"A decade ago, Senator Roberts was generally considered to be a relatively moderate senator, and more recently, I think probably because of concerns about how to survive a primary, he's become a very, very conservative senator," Orman said. "He's finding himself in a position where he's voted against a lot of things Kansans care about. He voted against the farm bill, he voted against veterans' benefits, and maybe most objectionably, he did not take a vote on the VA reform bill because doing so would have been a politically difficult vote to take during a primary. Instead of going there and standing with Kansas veterans, he took the easy way out and didn't vote at all."

So far Orman, who is not accepting PAC money, has raised more than $600,000 from individual donors; more importantly, he has the personal wealth to run a substantial campaign.

Yet despite the positives in Orman's column, Republicans in the state remain unconcerned. For one thing, Roberts's campaign thinks Orman's partisan history will be a big turn-off for Kansas voters once they learn more about the independent candidate.

"This is a Harry Reid [and] Barack Obama donor," said Roberts consultant David Kensinger. "He's not putting that in his ads, but he's not going to go the last 10 weeks of the campaign without people knowing it."

And Roberts supporters say they're certain the incumbent's accrued goodwill in the state, combined with the weight of his experience, will pull through for him. One major reason for that confidence, they say, is that Roberts's biggest supporters in the state have longer memories than the primary race.

Kansas Farm Bureau President Steve Baccus, for example, was unwavering in his support for Roberts despite his opposition the 2014 farm bill.

"We think important to look at the overall work of somebody like [Roberts]," said Baccus. "It's true that his voting record this year, especially in the later portions of this session, did not meet the Farm Bureau's approval, and he knew it, and we told him so. But at the same time, we knew he was in a very hard race with an ultraconservative candidate, they were both trying to out-conservative each other, and that impacted some of his votes."

Baccus said he had no doubt Roberts would win his race and that his group was actively doing get-out-the-vote work on the senator's behalf. To Baccus, having a senator with Roberts's knowledge of agriculture and legislative clout was more important than promises from a candidate without a voting record.

"We felt like we needed a farm bill, we needed some direction, we especially needed the crop insurance portion, but we understand his options to target prices, those things happen," Baccus said. "People back here like Senator Roberts a lot. He's done a lot for the state during his time in office. He's been the father of several big farm bills."

Eric Stafford, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce's vice president for government affairs, echoed Baccus's loyalty toward Roberts, though his group doesn't formally endorse in federal races. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Roberts in February.)

"Pat's done a lot of good things for Kansas, and he'll be OK at the end of the day," Stafford says. "Pat is a strong supporter of the business community, he was vocal for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he was very vocal in calling for [former Health and Human Services Secretary] Kathleen Sebelius's resignation. He's very well-supported by our members."

Stafford shrugged off the suggestion that Orman's support for a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally would make a difference to his group, saying Roberts was right about most other things.

Orman's campaign maintains it has a path to victory, particularly considering the state's large number of independents. Its pollster, Dave Beattie, said registered Democrats constitute about 25 percent of the state's voters, another 30 percent are independents, and 45 percent are Republicans.

If Orman is elected in November, he would be the third independent senator, and depending on the result of other races, it's possible neither party would hold the Senate majority. If one side did, Orman said he would attempt to caucus with that majority, whether Republicans or Democrats held control. If not, though, he said he would sit down with both sides to see which better addressed the nation's biggest issues.

In other words, control of the Senate could depend on him in a few months. But both he and Roberts have a lot of obstacles to navigate before that possibility could start to approach.