Since winning a hard-fought primary against a tea party challenger, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) seemed to rest on his laurels — failing to run any television advertising for the past month and returning to his home in Northern Virginia to recuperate after his victory.
Now Roberts, 78, is the focus of an urgent political rescue operation led by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is deploying a veteran strategist and others to try to bolster his foundering campaign with less than nine weeks until the November election.
The moves come in response to the sudden rise of Greg Orman, a well-funded independent candidate, as a serious threat to Roberts after Democratic nominee Chad Taylor said he was exiting the race. Adding to the tumult, Roberts’ executive campaign manager, Leroy Towns, has left his position, Republicans familiar with the move said Thursday.
GOP leaders fear that if deeply conservative Kansas becomes competitive, it could force the party to alter its strategy in pursuit of the six seats it needs for a Senate majority. The race also comes at a time of unrest among the state’s Republicans, who have divided into warring camps over the conservative policies implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback (R).
“The stakes are incredibly high right now in every close race in the country, and you need your A team on the field in every race,”said Brian Walsh, a former NRSC official. “With a little over eight weeks to go until the election, neither side can afford a misstep, especially in a state as Republican as Kansas.”
The NRSC is sending longtime operative Chris LaCivita and others to help Roberts, who will also be aided by Gary Maloney, an opposition researcher who was close to former George H.W. Bush strategist Lee Atwater.
People close to the campaign, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said concerns about Roberts’s operation have been growing for weeks and that talks began in late August about bringing in help. LaCivita was initially contacted last week, these people said.
At the center of the rapidly shifting race is Orman, 45, a former Democrat and Republican who won’t say which party he would caucus with if elected. Orman briefly flirted with a run against Roberts as a Democrat the last time he was up for reelection. Republicans have accused Democrats of meddling to remove Taylor in hopes that Orman will win and join them. Taylor formally filed a letter with the state of Kansas late Wednesday requesting his removal from the ballot.
The contest was thrown for another twist on Thursday when Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) announced that Taylor’s name must remain on the ballot because he had not provided notice that he is incapable of serving, as required by state law.
Kobach said in an interview that he and his attorneys had spent most of Thursday morning meeting with the Kansas attorney general and his chief deputy to discuss the legalities of the case. Kobach, who sits on Roberts’s honorary campaign committee, insisted he was not playing politics.
“Frankly, I wish this case was reversed and it was a Republican trying to remove their name because the law is the law,” Kobach said. “Mr. Taylor did not meet the requirements and his name will remain on the ballot.”
Taylor, whose departure came with no notice and no explanation, argued that he fulfilled the requirements as they were explained to him by Brad Bryant, the state’s director of elections and legislative matters. He plans to challenge the ruling.
“I specifically asked Mr. Bryant if the letter contained all the information necessary to remove my name from the ballot. Mr. Bryant said, ‘Yes,’ ” Taylor said in a statement.
Bryant did not respond to a request for comment.
If Taylor’s name stays on the ballot, some Democrats showing up at the polls in November might simply vote for him out of party unity, lessening the risk to Roberts.
The four-term incumbent comfortably defeated tea party candidate Milton Wolf in the primary, but the battle came at a cost: Polling shows he is unpopular, which observers attribute to an emerging perception that he has lost touch with the state.
Wolf repeatedly attacked Roberts, who owns a home in Alexandria, for paying rent to stay with supporters when he is in Kansas instead of staying in a home of his own. After the primary, Roberts’s campaign manager told a local paper that the senator “went back home for two days or three to rest.” Home meant the Washington suburbs.
Roberts’s challenge is to demonstrate to Kansas voters that he has not ditched their concerns for a comfortable and disconnected life in the nation’s capital, strategists said.
Republican consultant Henry Barbour, who backed six-term Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s difficult primary win earlier this year, said Roberts needs to call more attention to his record of bringing federal projects to Kansas in recent decades — a strategy Cochran employed.
“Kansas can count on Senator Roberts — that’s the kind of message that he’ll need to drive,” Barbour said. “He’ll need to speak about specific things on how he has helped out the colleges and the universities and brought jobs to the state’s big employers.”
But, Barbour added, “even if he plays up his work for the state, he can’t forget about competing for those voters who pay attention only to national issues. That’s a large segment and you’ve got to reach them in a plainspoken, direct way about how you recognize the problems in D.C. and want to fix them.”
Clayton L. Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Roberts’s “first task will be to define Orman to the voters of Kansas before Orman can define himself.”
Orman is a political enigma. Over the years, he’s donated money to recipients as disparate as liberal Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He says he voted for President Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. He also won’t reveal which side he would choose to caucus with in the Senate, other than to say he would probably side with the majority party and would keep an open mind if he is the deciding vote.
Orman flooded the airwaves with advertisements in recent weeks while Roberts’s campaign has been quiet. Polls show Orman running competitively against the Republican in a head-to-head race.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post last week, Orman decried the partisan gridlock that has seized Congress. He presented himself as a moderate in the mold of Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader from Kansas, and took aim at Roberts for voting against the farm bill and failing to vote on Veterans Affairs reform legislation.
On immigration, Orman said he would have supported the comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate last year.
According to lengthy explanation of his political history posted on his campaign Web site, Orman said he decided to become a Democrat after becoming disillusioned by the George W. Bush administration. He briefly explored a run against Roberts as a Democrat before pulling the plug on that idea.
He has parked himself firmly in the middle of the political spectrum in the years since, co-founding a centrist group called the Common Sense Coalition in 2010. After initially refusing to say who he had voted for, he told The Post he defected from Obama to Romney in 2012 because of the president’s “very, very partisan approach to health care.”
In addition to competing for centrist voters, Roberts will also have to appease frustrated conservatives.
Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host who has campaigned for several conservative candidates this year, said Roberts needs to do more to fire up activists still fuming over Roberts’s defeat of Wolf in the GOP primary.
“Roberts seems like a nice man, and his campaign may believe that he can win by keeping his head down and not saying anything controversial,” Ingraham said. “But people are not looking for another old-guard senator who doesn’t ruffle feathers in the Republican leadership.”
Chuck Henderson, a tea party organizer in Manhattan, Kan., who volunteered for Wolf’s campaign, said Roberts has “totally lost touch.”
“He is stuck in 1996, as far as his views,” Henderson said.