DODGE CITY, Kansas — Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is standing in the atrium of the decaying Dodge City Mall, scantily-clad mannequins on display behind him in the window of a store called Illusions, warning a hometown crowd that the country is descending into national socialism.
“We have to change course,” Roberts said, pacing back and forth as former Republican presidential nominee and legendary Kansas Sen. Bob Dole remained seated behind him, “because our country is headed for national socialism. That’s not right, it’s changing our culture, it’s changing what we are all about.”
This new, harsher Pat Roberts has emerged in the face of a suddenly career-threatening challenge from Greg Orman, a millionaire investor who’s running as an independent. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that Democrat Chad Taylor could remove his name from the November ballot, leaving Roberts and Orman in what polls show is a close two-man race – and putting the Kansas Senate contest squarely at the center of the national battle for control of the upper chamber.
“You vote for me, I will be part of a Republican majority, put [Harry Reid] in the cloakroom, maybe put him in the closet,” Roberts said at the mall.
His rhetoric was a jarring contrast to the 91-year-old Dole, who called saving Social Security the highlight of his career, excoriated Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for shutting down the government, and drew applause for his calls for compromise.
“Sometimes Republicans don’t have all the answers, sometimes Democrats don’t have all the answers,” said Dole, who had invited Roberts along on a few of the stops in his 105-county farewell tour of Kansas. “I’m a traditional, Republican conservative – I’m not over far on the right – some of those guys are so far on the right, they’re going to fall out of the Capitol.”
The crowd laughed. Roberts, standing to the side, did not. “I reach across the aisle; I’m not going to compromise on principle, that’s for doggone sure,” he told reporters after the event.
Roberts’ sudden peril has prompted Republicans of all stripes to come to Kansas in the final weeks of the midterm election campaign: John McCain and Sarah Palin were campaigning for Roberts just hours apart this week, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan are all planning to come in to help. If Roberts loses, it will be the first time since 1938 that Kansas has sent a non-Republican to the Senate.
Roberts’ operation is way behind where they should be with less than six weeks to go. The candidate is making personal appeals to colleagues in Congress to help him raise money from wealthy cities in nearby states. Outside Republican groups are already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and save Roberts’ hide. And national Republicans have sent in a new campaign team that’s had to start from scratch in the final 60 days of the election season – honing a message, building opposition research files, and even printing and distributing yard signs.
Their strategy: Strip Orman of his independent credentials and paint him as just another Democrat who’s part of the problem. “A vote for the other fella who’s a liberal Democrat, who says he’s an independent, was recruited by Harry Reid,” Roberts told voters at an event in tiny Kinsley, Kan., not far from Dodge City.
What’s not clear is whether that message will resonate in a state where 30% of voters are registered as independents, negative campaigning seems to turn stomachs, and the electorate seems restive and fed up.
“I’ve been a supporter all along, I’m registered as an independent, at the present time I’m looking at his opposition,” said Darrel Miller, a retired farmer from Kinsley, a western town that should be a stronghold for Roberts.
“He’s been here so long,” said Miller, who – like most of the attendees at the events Roberts held in western Kansas early this week – went to the local fairgrounds primarily to see Dole. “I’m just ready for a change, personally.”
An independent enigma
Greg Orman is running late for his event with Wichita teachers on Wednesday morning; the event isn’t on his public schedule, the better to avoid the trackers who now try to record his every move. Waiting for him are reporters from national publications like The Washington Post and The Atlantic – a sign of just how quickly he has been thrust into the national spotlight.
Orman seems to have struck a nerve by pitching himself as someone who would stay outside of Washington’s partisan power structure, even if he can’t quite explain how he’ll avoid the fray and still manage to implement the sweeping changes he says he wants to see.
“Washington’s broken; we’re sending the worst of both parties there, bitter partisans that seem to care more about pleasing the extremists in their own parties than in solving problems,” he says. ”Public service without courage quickly becomes self-service.”
Orman is a political enigma: He once ran for Senate as a Democrat, but says he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012; he backs comprehensive immigration reform but says he would have voted against the health care law; and he thinks the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal should have been debated in the Senate, but argues Democrats didn’t do enough to push for stronger background checks for gun sales.
“I would have ultimately voted to expand background checks; Harry Reid didn’t,” Orman said when asked in an interview if he could name issues where his positions differ from the Senate majority leader’s. “That bill ultimately didn’t make it through the Senate because Harry Reid didn’t support it.” (Reid is a supporter of background checks; he changed his vote to “no” on the bill to satisfy a procedural requirement that would let him bring it back up in the future.)
Orman’s position on gun control drew a question from a teacher in the audience on Wednesday. “I think there are some things we need to do to strengthen the rules around gun ownership to prevent issues,” Orman said. “I don’t think we want our neighbors having bazookas or grenade launchers. So I don’t think reasonable restrictions are a bad thing.”
In the last week, Orman’s campaign has gotten its first taste of the drawbacks of frontrunner status – and his understaffed campaign has struggled to keep up. Orman is a millionaire who would become one of the richest people in the Senate, and his business relationships and personal financial disclosures have become front-page news in Kansas as Roberts’ campaign – and particularly its opposition research arm – have kicked into a higher gear. Of particular interest is Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs board member who’s serving time for insider trading. Orman calls him a “friend,” and says he still stands by him; the two have a joint investment of $50,000 or less that Orman called “modest.” The median income in Kansas is about $51,000.
But the overarching question is which party Orman will support if he does manage to beat Roberts. National Democrats, and particularly Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, played a key role in convincing Taylor, their party’s nominee, to take himself out of the running for the seat; some outside Democratic groups are weighing whether to put ads up supporting Orman. (“Ultimately I think Citizens United was bad law and I think all special interest groups who are spending money on this race should stay out,” he said when asked if he would accept the help.)
But Orman refuses to say who he’ll caucus with; he says it will be the majority party if there’s a clear breakdown following November’s election. But he’s acutely aware of just how close the margin could be for control of the chamber – and knows he could find himself as the only person standing between Mitch McConnell and the Senate Majority Leader’s office.
“If I get elected, there’s a reasonable chance that neither party has the majority. And if that’s the case, it’s a great opportunity for Kansas,” he said in an interview.
And if the party he chooses doesn’t keep him happy? “With our election, we’ll also be in a position to hold that party accountable,” he said, “so we could change our allegiances and ultimately caucus with the other party.”