Sen. Pat Roberts and the Republican Party’s Senate campaign arm are moving aggressively to reorganize and ramp up his campaign in the wake of the Kansan finding himself in an unexpectedly tough re-election battle.
Still recovering from a bruising August primary, Roberts faces wealthy businessman Greg Orman, an independent, in the general election.
It was unclear Thursday whether the state will grant Democratic nominee Chad Taylor’s request to withdraw his name from the ballot. But Roberts, who has run a lackluster campaign, is shaking up his re-election team and preparing to get aggressive to mitigate a series of political challenges his supporters describe as concerning but manageable.
“This last 24 hours have been a ‘come to Jesus' for Roberts. This is a real deal now,” a Kansas Republican operative told the Washington Examiner.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also is stepping up its effort, GOP sources say. The committee’s chairman is Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who is in perhaps the best position to help guide Roberts through the impending storm.
Moran won a hard-fought Senate primary in 2010, has stayed in touch with state politics and travels home to Kansas almost every weekend, unlike Roberts. Expect the NRSC to deliver resources in the way of on-the-ground staff and possibly advertising and cash. The committee's first move was to dispatch GOP consultant Chris LaCivita to Kansas to take the helm of the Roberts campaign. The move, confirmed by the NRSC, was reported by the New York Times.
The committee was still developing its strategic plan Thursday afternoon. Kansas is a generally reliable Republican territory, and the last thing the NRSC planned to worry about this cycle was protecting Roberts.
Orman has a complicated partisan past. First a Republican, he later turned independent, then Democrat, then independent again. He has said he'll caucus with whichever party holds the majority after the Nov. 4 elections.
If the Republicans run the table and flip the six Democratic-held seats they need to win the Senate majority, an Orman victory might have little impact on the balance of power. But if Democrats maintain control, it would put Senate Republicans further in the hole heading into 2016.
Roberts, 78, won his primary over flawed Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf but failed to crack 50 percent of the vote. The three-term senator owns a home in Northern Virginia but not in Kansas and has been dogged by residency issues. After winning the primary, Roberts retreated to his home in Virginia to rest and recover.
Polls show that voters are across the country are broadly disgusted with Washington. That sentiment is particularly pronounced in Kansas and probably fuels voter sentiment as much as disappointment with President Obama, serving to compounded Roberts’ problem of running for re-election as an incumbent who has spent more than 30 years in Congress.
“From an issue standpoint and a communications standpoint, if I were Orman, I would make this all about Washington versus Kansas,” said a Republican with Kansas ties. Neither the Roberts or Orman campaigns responded to requests for comment on Thursday.
Roberts also must deal with issues out of his control.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is facing an unexpectedly tough re-election bid. Brownback’s position is improving, but his political troubles have been a drag on the rest of the GOP ticket. The rural economy and Wichita’s aviation economy are struggling, fueling general voter angst in the state. Meanwhile, simmering tensions between Kansas’ moderate and conservative Republicans — a dynamic that predates the rise of the Tea Party — have flared anew.
All of these factors provide Orman with an opening. But Republicans see a path to victory for Roberts.
It begins with spending virtually every day between now and Election Day in Kansas. It continues with raising money — Roberts would be chairman of the Agriculture Committee if the Republicans win the Senate — and running a smart, modern campaign. Roberts doesn’t have to do anything innovative, just basic “campaign 101,” Kansas Republicans say.
Republicans familiar with Orman, the Democratic Senate nominee in 2008, added that they also expect to uncover information in his background that will cause voters to reconsider supporting him. Republicans charge that he’s a liberal masquerading as an independent. Thus far, only one poll tested a Roberts-Orman head-to-head race: Orman led in that mid August survey, 43 percent to 33 percent.
“Here’s what’s cool about this race. In order to win, we have to be able to walk fast and quit falling over,” one of Roberts’ Republican supporters said.