It's a bad year for Republican officials in Kansas.
Roberts defeated primary opponent Dr. Milton Wolf with just 48 percent of the vote — an unimpressive showing for a three-term incumbent — and a recent poll showed the senator taking just 32 percent of the general election vote.
Despite support from less than one-third of the electorate, he's still leading because independent Greg Orman takes 23 percent of the vote, barely trailing Democratic nominee Chad Taylor’s 25 percent.
Pat Roberts' Democratic challenger, Chad Taylor (AP photo)
How did an incumbent who's been in the Senate since 1997 (and, before that, held a House seat since 1981) get to this point? The state’s moderate and centrist Republicans think it might have something to do with Brownback.
Dick Bond, a Republican former Kansas Senate president, endorsed Brownback’s Democratic challenger, Paul Davis. He said the governor’s poor approval ratings could be a problem for other Republicans on the ticket.
“Brownback is very extreme and he’s a load to carry for anyone that’s on the ticket with him, including Roberts,” said Bond.
That’s certainly far from the consensus among Kansas GOPers. But state Republicans often differ broadly on issues of ideology and tone, so intraparty differences can determine a candidate’s prospects. And the messy primary didn’t do Roberts any favors.
“The Tea Party did him a lot of damage in the primary,” said Bond. “They had some effective TV ads, and I don’t know that they were answered by the Roberts campaign very effectively.”
Gov. Sam Brownback
Bond also cites another potential sleeper issue: Roberts’ vote against the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Bob Dole, former Kansas senator and Republican presidential candidate, lobbied hard for its passage.
Wint Winter, who heads the pro-Davis group Republicans for Kansas Values, echoed Bond's criticism. He said Dole is revered by many Kansans, and that people were surprised to see Roberts, his protege, diverge from his stance.
“People are confused about where he is,” Winter continued. “Is he a Bob Dole practical conservative, or is he a Tea Partier? And he’s confused people by not being either.”
He hasn’t confused everyone. Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas GOP, said he thinks Roberts is doing better than recent polling indicates.
“There’s no strong dislike for Roberts anywhere, in any of the opposition,” he said. “A lot of Democrats and liberals really dislike Brownback and [incumbent Secretary of State] Kris Kobach. Those two really shoot the blood pressure up. Roberts doesn’t have that effect.”
And, he added, Orman’s presence is a boon to the embattled incumbent.
“Orman will split the anti-Roberts vote,” he said.
Leroy Towns, Roberts’ campaign manager, said he isn’t too worried about recent polling as the race “hasn’t really started yet.”
“We’re just now getting into it,” he said.
And he said he hadn’t heard any concerns about Roberts’ vote on the UN convention.
“I don’t think that issue has ever come up,” he said. “I’ve never heard it, I don’t believe the senator’s ever heard it. It’s just a non-issue in this race.”