The Senior U.S. Senator from Kansas, Republican Pat Roberts, is seeking a fourth term. Opposing him is independent candidate Greg Orman, a businessman. In addition, Randall Batson is running as a Libertarian candidate. Notably absent in this race is a candidate from the Democratic Party: Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee dropped out of the race in September. Taylor's decision to withdraw from the race paved the way for Orman to present the first serious challenge to Republican control of Kansas' Senate seats in eight decades. Concerns over Roberts' failure to remain in touch with Kansans, as well as Orman's moderate stance on a number of hot-button social issues has led to a neck-and-neck race just days before voters head to the polls.
In deeply red Kansas, no non-Republican has been elected to the Senate since 1932. Greg Orman, an Independent with no political experience, hopes to change that. Incumbent Pat Roberts is seeking his fourth term in the Senate, and this race is shaping up to be his most challenging campaign to date. Chad Taylor’s decision to withdraw from the race in early September, and the ensuing court cases around that decision, thrust this race into the national spotlight: The absence of a Democratic candidate has allowed the anti-Roberts factions to coalesce around Orman, making him the first centrist independent candidate with a real shot at election in many years.
Given the historically deep red nature of Kansas, Roberts could have, in past years, reasonably expected to be the victor of the general election when the primary votes were tallied. But not this year. Amidst the dirty fight between Milton Wolf and Roberts in the primary, Orman dropped one-million dollars on ad-buys throughout the state to carry his message that Washington was broken: In a media market like Kansas, one-million dollars equates to a great many opportunities to get a message like Orman’s across.
Greg Orman’s platform is one of broken politics, a notion that has resonated with a great many voters both in Kansas and throughout the nation. Given his fiscally conservative, socially liberal ideology, Orman has found support from unexpected places, garnering support from Planned Parenthood as well as Tea Party conservatives who support his calls for a balanced budget amendment as well as holding the government responsible to the same accounting practices as companies. Furthermore, Orman prioritizes the same issues that are regularly shown to be most prescient to the electorate: Economy, Taxes, Jobs, and Immigration. Orman’s “socially tolerant” attitude also reflects changing preferences within the broader national electorate. The median age in Kansas is 36 according to the 2010 census: Pat Roberts is 78, more than twice the median age; Greg Orman is 45. Many younger voters are likely to view Roberts as out of touch with issues such as gay marriage and accessible abortion, both of which Roberts opposes and Orman supports but emphasizes should not be the focus of the current political discourse. Furthermore 10.4% of the population is comprised of single women, 6.4% of whom have children under 18. Roberts’ alliance with Governor Sam Brownback, who has gutted education funding, does him no favors with this voting group. Similarly, there are approximately 95,000 teachers in Kansas; Roberts should expect few votes from this group as well.
Orman’s independence is a double-edged sword. His personal wealth makes it possible for him to reject funds from special interest groups, while it also means he is less likely to receive the votes of traditional groups such as Labor or the Religious Right. Independence does confer an inherent blessing given the recent shift towards ultra-partisanship: Voters will not view a vote for an independent as a vote against the Republicans, as Orman can still caucus with the Republicans. However, Orman’s refusal to ally with either party has opened the door for Roberts to label him as a Democrat who supported President Obama: Obama is a four-letter word in Kansas, where Mitt Romney won by 20 points in 2012. However, precedent does exist for non-Republicans winning statewide election: Kathleen Sebelius did so as Governor in 2002.
Roberts certainly has a number of advantages, incumbency not the least of them. Having served for 18 years in the Senate, Roberts has a distinguished book of legislative business including a number of high-profile agriculture and security bills that he sponsored. Moreover, Roberts can count on solid support from the GOP regardless of his tough primary challenge: His decisions to take a hardline stance on government spending will resonate with the Tea Party members whom he lost touch with over the past term. Furthermore, Kansas is still overwhelmingly red, giving Roberts an advantage with party-line voters. In addition, a majority of Kansans would rather see the Senate in the control of the GOP than the Democrats, an unsurprising fact that helps Roberts.
But will Roberts’ name recognition and party advantage be enough? No. Pat Roberts needs, or needed, to make a convincing argument to Kansas why his experience was worth reelecting him: From all accounts, Roberts has made his campaign one that is against Orman and not for himself. This plays right into Orman’s hand of decrying political divisiveness and negativity. Each time Pat Roberts, or one of his conservative Senate colleagues, compares Greg Orman to President Obama, Orman’s claims are made that much more true. Roberts’ experience is a valuable asset for the state, and Orman’s inexperience is certainly a liability; why Roberts hasn’t highlighted this is curious. In addition, Roberts should distance himself from polarizing figures both nationally and within Kansas: Campaigning with Governor Brownback, who is ever more likely to be unemployed come the end of this year, does more harm than good.
Pat Roberts and Greg Orman will head into the voting booths on November 4th with control of the Senate at their, and the rest of Kansas’ fingertips. Orman’s indication that he will caucus with the majority party, and the forecasts for the rest of the Senate races this year make Kansas’ race all the more important to both sides. Voters will essentially be asked whether or not to return an experienced, Washington insider to his seat in favor of a novice centrist. Given the massive discontent with both sides of the aisle, Roberts’ move to the right, and his relatively tenuous connection to Kansans in light of his recent votes, Greg Orman should be hopeful on November 5th: Even if he loses, he will have made the first real stab at breaking the gridlock in Washington.