Republican incumbent Pat Roberts defends Senate seat in Kansas

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Republican incumbents in Kansas overcame a crucial test Tuesday night, riding a nationwide wave of voter discontent to hold onto their seats.

Three-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts defended his seat against a third-party candidate whose late surge in the polls made the race in Kansas an unexpected toss-up leading into election night. Gov. Sam Brownback also pulled off a win, leading challenger Paul Davis 50-46 with 91% of precincts reporting, despite coming under fire by Democrats and Republicans alike for his far-right economic agenda.

"While Sen. Roberts won tonight, we didn’t lose. We not only ran against Sen. Roberts, we ran against the whole Washington establishment."'

The outcome in Kansas helped push Republicans over the 50-seat threshold the party needed to secure control of the Senate, giving the GOP power over both houses of Congress.

With 91% of precincts reporting, Roberts led with 53% of the vote, NBC News reports, trumping independent candidate Greg Orman, who garnered 43%.

A somber crowd of roughly 300 supporters gathered in the convention center at Overland Park to applaud Orman as he took the stage to concede, flanked by his family and campaign staff.“While Sen. Roberts won tonight, we didn’t lose,” Orman said to a round of applause. “We not only ran against Sen. Roberts, we ran against the whole Washington establishment.”

Following his concession speech, Orman said he considered himself to be a lifelong independent. 

“I think if you look at the difficulty of running as an independent in a state like Kansas, I think this really should give hope to independents,” he said.

The battle for the Senate seat boiled down to whether voters were looking for a fresh face to represent Kansas after more than three decades with Roberts in Congress. In his campaign, Orman made Roberts’ role in Washington dysfunction a central theme, saying the incumbent senator has repeatedly failed to appear at his committee hearings. Roberts argued that the 45-year-old businessman was merely masquerading as an independent, telling voters that Orman would side with President Obama and Democratic leadership. 

A 56% majority of Kansas voters would prefer to see the Republican Party in charge next year, while only 29% prefer the Democrats, according to the NBC News exit poll in the state. Many Kansas voters also used their Senate vote to send a message to Obama.  More than three-quarters of Roberts supporters – 77% -- said that one reason for their vote was to express opposition to the president. By contrast, a similar 77% of Orman voters said that Obama was not a factor in their vote.

Roberts also benefitted from questions surrounding the business history of Orman, who has professional ties with an ex-Goldman Sachs board member serving a prison sentence for insider trading. In the NBC exit poll, 51% of Kansas voters said that Greg Orman’s business dealings made them concerned about his overall honesty, compared to 43% who said this was not a concern. 

Brownback overcame a narrow path to re-election this year, an unexpected turn of events for an incumbent who sailed into victory in 2010. The Republican came under fire for his far-right economic agenda, which angered even many in his own party.

Brownback made dramatic cuts to taxes and spending, slashing many government jobs while also reining in the social safety net. With a strong majority at his back, Brownback pitched the cuts as a path to prosperity for Kansas. Instead, the cuts were more than the state could afford, leaving Kansas at the end of its fiscal year in July with a $300 million revenue shortfall. The state’s bond rating has since been downgraded twice.

Republicans had worried about a backlash, and an NBC News exit poll found that Brownback was able to hold on to the state house despite a lot of opposition. A 53% majority of Kansas voters said his tax cuts mostly hurt the state. Democratic challenger Paul Davis won 85% of this group’s vote. But Brownback was able to pull out a victory by claiming 95% support among the 4-iin-10 voters who say his cuts actually helped Kansas.

Ahead of Election Day, Secretary of State Kris Kobach predicted that 50% of eligible voters would turn out for the race, on par with outcomes from the 2010 midterm elections. 

As night fell on Kansas City on Tuesday, voters streamed out of polling locations, thankful to see an end to an election season that drew millions of dollars in outside spending to the state.

Lifelong Republican voters, fed up with the current state of affairs from Kansas to Washington, said they hoped for a change in leadership.

"I'm a Republican all of the way, except for Brownback," Gary Calvin said after casting his ballot in Johnson County. "He's simply way too conservative for me."

NBC News election unit contributed reporting.