Key presidential nominating states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have seen a flurry of activity as would-be presidential candidates descend to stump on behalf of midterm candidates. Two years out from the next general election, potential 2016-ers want national exposure and a leg up with voters, activists and donors in these make-or-break presidential states.
But this year, there's been an unlikely addition to the list of favorite stops for potential Republican candidates: Kansas.
Last month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stumped on behalf of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who is serious danger of losing his seat in the reliably-red state to independent candidate Greg Orman. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also have plans to campaign with the three-term senator before the upcoming race.
Kansas is not a political heavyweight state in terms of presidential politics. The state doesn’t vote early in the primaries, there aren’t very many delegates up for grabs, and it’s certainly not a swing state. Roberts, a loyal member of the party establishment, isn’t exactly a favorite among party activists either. So what gives?
For one thing, the GOP likely needs a Roberts victory if it's going to achieve a net gain of six seats and gain control of the Senate. Roberts was once considered a shoo-in, but since Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, polls have shown Roberts trailing Orman, a former Democrat who's more likely than not to caucus with his old party. A new NBC News/Marist poll showed Orman leading by 10 points among likely voters.
And if the GOP needs Kansas, it's no surprise that potential presidential candidates want to swoop in and save the day.
Nathaniel Birkhead, an assistant professor of political science at Kansas State University, said if potential 2016 candidates do stump for Roberts — and he does win — it’s something they can take credit for later on, especially if the Senate majority takeover does come down to the race in the Sunflower State. “If they win in 2016, they go back to Roberts and remind him and voters that they did him a solid," he said.
Birkhead also pointed out that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, who bankroll many GOP campaigns and are expected to play a big role in 2016, have started to pour money into the Kansas race. And it never hurts for a GOP lawmaker to be on the same side as the Kochs.
“I think [2016 candidates] genuinely want to get that Senate majority,” said Melvin Kahn, a political science professor at Wichita State University. A GOP-Senate would make their lives easier should they make it to the White House, and “they certainly don’t want to lose a race that was expected to be in the bag.” Kahn added that because the race is getting a lot of attention, it’s a good opportunity for potential candidates to get national publicity.
"[Kansas Senator Jerry] Moran has a big stake in protecting Pat Roberts’ seat."'
There’s also the Jerry Moran factor. Roberts’ fellow Kansas senator isn’t up for election until 2016 but has a lot riding on this year’s races as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The optics of a Republican, incumbent senator losing in his home state — especially a deep red one like Kansas — would not be good. And for potential presidential candidates, doing a favor for a powerful Washington Republican like Moran is always a smart move.
“I’m sure he’s been talking to [2016 candidates], saying, ‘Why don’t you come here and get some national exposure and also help my fellow state Republicans out,'” said Fort Hays State University political science professor Chapman Rackaway. “Moran has a big stake in protecting Pat Roberts’ seat.”
The 78-year-old lawmaker has faced one heck of a roller-coaster ride this election cycle. Roberts – who was first elected to Congress when Jimmy Carter was president — faced a heated primary battle against tea party-backed challenger Milton Wolf. Now he's truly fighting for his political life. Orman, a 45-year-old businessman, has gone after Roberts as a D.C. insider who is out of touch with what Kansans want — including voting against the farm bill and criticizing him for failing to vote on Veterans Affairs reform legislation.
“I think this is a referendum on Pat Roberts more so than a referendum on Orman,” said Birkhead. Rackaway agreed, noting no political figure in the state has an approval rating of more than 50%. Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is also facing a tight race of his own against Democrat Paul Davis.
“There’s an anti-incumbent sentiment that’s coming through much more than usual in Kansas,” said Rackaway.