Once Low-Key, U.S. Senate Race In Kansas Suddenly Volatile

Sep 8, 2014
Originally published on September 8, 2014 3:06 pm

There are a couple of things we've long known to be true of the state of Kansas: the stormy weather (just ask a little girl named Dorothy and her dog, Toto), and the politics. In presidential elections, Kansas is deep red. And the state's entire congressional delegation is Republican.

But this year, there's sudden volatility in Kansas politics. As a result, some longtime Republican officeholders are fighting to keep their jobs, including U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

Politics recently took the stage at the Kansas State Fair. Roberts, 78, who has has been in Congress for more than 30 years, debated opponent Greg Orman. He's a 45-year-old businessman who is not a Democrat, but an independent. Orman is hoping that at a time of hyperpartisanship, moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents will find his pitch appealing.

"We're sending the worst of both parties [to Washington]. Bitter partisans who care more about pleasing extremists than they do solving problems. I've tried both parties and, like lots of Kansans, I've been disappointed. That's why I'm running for the U.S. Senate as an independent," Orman told the crowd.

To say Roberts is a Kansas institution is an understatement. But Orman sees an opening. The senator had a tougher-than-expected challenge from a Tea Party candidate in the primary. Roberts' approval ratings are very low this year. He's accused of being more Washington than Dodge City, his hometown. And there were questions raised about where he actually lives — in Kansas or suburban D.C.

He also seemed to be taking re-election for granted. But at the state fair debate, he came out swinging, repeatedly portraying Orman as a friend of President Obama and Harry Reid, an insult in a place like Kansas.

"The choice is clear. I am the only candidate on this stage that will vote to put Harry Reid out to pasture and break the gridlock. Now, my opponent wants you to believe that he is an independent. He is not. He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy," Roberts said.

It was hard to keep track of all the times Roberts mentioned Reid in the debate. Orman, meanwhile, hasn't said which party he'll caucus with if he gets to Washington as an independent U.S. senator.

There was no Democrat on the stage, because nominee Chad Taylor last week dropped out of the race. He saw no chance of winning, and his withdrawal gives Orman a much better shot at an upset.

Roberts accused the national Democratic Party of pushing Taylor to quit. "Well, this is the first time I've ever seen national Democrats work really hard to get a Democrat off the ballot," he said.

But there's another twist. Kansas' Republican secretary of state has ruled that Taylor's name must stay on the ballot.

Orman reacted to that decision: "Well, this does create a really unique situation. I think it's the first time I've heard a Republican complain about disenfranchising Democratic voters."

It's far from the usual low-key Senate race in Kansas.

Republicans need to gain six seats to win control of the chamber. Which means Roberts must hold his seat, or it makes the GOP task that much harder nationally. To that end, that national Republican Party has sent in the cavalry in the form of a new campaign manager and other resources.

So it could be a stormy couple of months for independent candidate Orman, and the state.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we next to a state that could influence control of the Senate, though nobody would have predicted it - the state of Kansas. The weather is unpredictable. Storms come roaring across the plains - think Dorothy and her dog. The politics usually are not so unpredictable. It's heavily Republican in Kansas - deep red. The state's entire congressional delegation is Republican right now.

But this year, Kansas politics are becoming as unpredictable as the weather. Some veteran Republicans are unexpectedly fighting to keep their jobs. NPR's Don Gonyea has this story of one of them - three-term U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The Kansas State Fair comes to life pretty early. By eight a.m., there's already serious competition going on in the sheep...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP)

GONYEA: ...And goat barns as Future Farmers of America guide their animals around the small ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPETITION ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: First place, Caroline Hoover, Dickinson. Second, Austyn Simpson, Cherokee.

GONYEA: That's from Saturday at the fair. By midmorning that same day, on the other side of the fairgrounds, a much noisier crowd gathered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And good morning, everyone. Once again, welcome to the Kansas State Fair in Hutcheson and Braetz and Young Injury Lawyers Arena. As we bring you now, the U.S. Senatorial debate...

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE ANNOUNCEMENT)

GONYEA: The incumbent in this race is Sen. Pat Roberts. At 70 years of age, he's been in Congress for more than 30 years - the past 18, almost, in the Senate. His opponent now is not a Democrat, but in independent. Forty-five-year-old businessman Greg Orman, who's hoping that at a time of hyper partisanship, moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents will find his pitch appealing. Here's how he describes the state of things in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GREG ORMAN: We're sending the worst of both parties there - bitter partisans who care more about pleasing extremists than they do solving problems. I've tried both parties and like lots of Kansans, I've been disappointed. That's why I'm running for the United States Senate as an independent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: To say Sen. Roberts is a Kansas institution is an understatement, but Orman sees an opening. The senator had a tougher than expected challenge from a Tea Party candidate in the primary. Robert's approval ratings are very low this year. He's accused of being more Washington than Dodge City, his hometown.

And there were questions raised about where he actually leaves - in Kansas or suburban D.C. He also seemed to be taking re-election for granted. But in the debate, he came out swinging, repeatedly portraying Ormon as a friend of President Obama and Harry Reid - an insult in a place like Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: The choice is clear. I am the only candidate on this stage that will vote to put Harry Reid out to pasture and break the gridlock.

(APPLAUSE)

ROBERTS: Now, my opponent - my opponent wants you to believe he's an independent. He is not. He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy.

GONYEA: It was hard to keep track of all the times that Roberts mentioned Harry Reid in the debate. Orman, meanwhile, hasn't said which party he'll caucus with if he gets to Washington as an independent U.S. senator.

Now, some background on this race perhaps the most unusual this year - there was no Democrat on the stage because nominee Chad Taylor last week dropped out of the race. He saw no chance of winning, and his withdraw gives Greg Orman of much better shot at an upset. Sen. Roberts, though, accused the national Democratic Party of pushing Taylor to quit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROBERTS: Well, this is the first time I've ever seen national Democrats really work very hard to get a Democrat off the ballot.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: But there's another twist - Kansas' Republican Secretary of State has ruled that Taylor's name must stay on the ballot. Greg Orman reacted to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ORMAN: Well, this does sort of reader really unique situation. I think it's the first time that I've heard a Republican complain about disenfranchising Democratic voters.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: So it's far from the usual low-key Senate race in Kansas. Remember, Republicans need to gain six seats to win control of the chamber, which means Roberts must hold his seat, or it makes the GOP task that much harder nationally. To that end, the national Republican Party has sent in the cavalry in the form of a new campaign manager and other resources. So independent candidate Greg Orman better brace himself for a stormy couple of months. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.