Roberts vs. Orman: An Unexpected Toss-Up in a Republican Stronghold

Photo courtesy of The Wichita Eagle

Photo courtesy of The Wichita Eagle

By Jack Minchew.

Kansas is a state that, perhaps more so than any other, was born to be Republican. Settled by abolitionist Republicans, and admitted to the Union in 1861 as a free state, Kansas has elected a grand total of three Democrats to the US Senate, the last of whom, George McGill, served only one term after riding Franklin Roosevelt’s coattails into office in 1932. Since the end of the Great Depression, Kansas has been as reliably Republican as any state in the nation.

Kansas also has a reputation of being a stronghold for centrist Republicans. Dwight Eisenhower, the last truly moderate Republican president, was born and raised in Kansas. US Senators and moderate Republicans Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum also hailed from the Sunflower State.

In recent years, however, traditionally centrist Kansas has seemed to stray from its moderate roots. After Dole’s retirement, he was replaced in the Senate by Sam Brownback, followed by Jerry Moran, both strong social and fiscal conservatives. Kassebaum’s seat was filled by Pat Roberts, a Republican, who, since his election in 1996, has grown more and more conservative, largely in response to primary challenges from more conservative Republicans.

Going into the 2014 election season, and with the prospect of a Republican takeover of the US Senate looking increasingly likely, Republican groups such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee began to focus on Democrat-held seats with the potential for a pick-up. Considering the uninspiring historical performance of Democratic Senate candidates in Kansas, most political observers rightly assumed that Pat Roberts would face little Democratic opposition in his quest for his fourth term.

This analysis would prove to be strangely prescient, and on September 3rd, Democratic nominee Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, and after a short court battle, his name was removed from the ballot, leaving only Roberts and little known independent challenger Greg Orman. What national political analysts could not have anticipated was the seemingly perfect storm of anti-Roberts factors that, when combined, turned a safe Republican seat into the closest race in the country.

After a savage primary challenge from a Tea Party opponent, in which he failed to earn a majority of the votes, Roberts emerged a weakened candidate. His opponent had attacked him for becoming a Washington insider, aided by a New York Times article which showed Roberts had, in fact, not lived in Kansas in over three decades. In his efforts to court anti-spending Tea Partiers, Roberts voted against the Farm Bill and opposed spending on a high-tech research facility at Kansas State University, both bills he had helped write. He joined conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz in his now infamous filibuster and voted against a UN treaty banning discrimination against the disabled, despite a floor speech from beloved former senator Bob Dole, who still holds an astronomic 73% favorable rating among Kansans.

By themselves, these faults might not have severely harmed Roberts, who still has the advantages of being an incumbent in a state where almost half the citizens are registered Republicans. What makes this race so close is the surprisingly excellent campaign run by his opponent, Independent Greg Orman.

Even this late in the campaign, only two weeks before Election Day, Orman remains a bit of a political mystery. A businessman and entrepreneur, Orman founded a company that designed energy-efficient lights and then sold it, making himself an instant millionaire. His political background is less clear. Orman states that he was an active member of the College Republicans at Princeton, and was a registered Republican for many years, before switching to the Democratic Party for a brief period, and eventually becoming an independent. Campaign finance records show that he has given large amounts of money to both parties, and Orman claims that he voted for President Obama in 2008 and for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Orman’s strategy thus far has been to portray himself as the successor to the long line of Kansas moderates, while attacking Roberts as an incumbent who has sacrificed his moderate beliefs to stay in office, and has sold out his constituents.  Orman’s political positions do appear to be quite moderate. He supports some limited gun control legislation, is not opposed to gay marriages, wants to drastically reform the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the tax code, and favors cutting government spending.

Orman has said that he will not vote for either Democrat Harry Reid or Republican Mitch McConnell for Majority leader, but that he will caucus with the majority party to best serve his constituents. An interesting scenario would be if Republicans only manage to take 50 seats, with the Democratic caucus holding 49 seats, and with Orman as the kingmaker. If he were to vote with the Democrats, Vice President Joe Biden could break ties, allowing the Democrats to keep the majority. If he voted with the Republicans, they would have the majority. Both circumstances would allow Orman to extract promises and guarantees from the majority leadership, making him perhaps the most powerful man in the Senate.

National Republican groups have only recently entered the race, realizing that losing an incumbent would severely hamper their plans for a Senate takeover. The NRSC has deployed some of their best operatives to Kansas, and conservative Super-PACs and PACs have begun pouring money into Roberts’ slumping campaign. Recent polls have shown Orman’s lead shrinking, and most show Roberts well within the margin of error. The Roberts campaign is definitely recovering, but it is anyone’s guess whether the sudden influx of Republican money and personnel will be enough to defeat Greg Orman.

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