INDEPENDENCE, Kan. – As Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) toured this state earlier this week with Robert J. Dole, the former Republican leader waxed nostalgic about the bipartisanship deal-making that marked his days running the Senate.
Dole specifically criticized Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for his role in last fall’s government shutdown. An ailing Kansas legend at 91, Dole still has his signature wit. He told one crowd, “Some of those guys are so far on the right they’re gonna fall out of the Capitol.”
But the message from the Roberts campaign was starkly different here Thursday morning, when Sarah Palin swooped into Independence to bestow her grass-roots tea party credibility on the surprisingly troubled Roberts re-election campaign.
Palin praised Roberts as a rock-ribbed conservative “who will fight like our country’s future depends on it.” And the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee thanked Roberts for standing alongside Cruz in filibustering funding for President Obama’s signature health-care law, a move which resulted in the shutdown.
“He’s not wishy-washy on the fence like you know who, the other guy,” Palin said, a reference to Roberts’s opponent, independent candidate Greg Orman. “I am so thankful because we need those with that stiff spine, with the principles that are so invicted [sic] within them, that they take a side.”
The contrast between Dole and Palin underscores both the troubles for Roberts here at home and the sudden urgency for the national Republican Party in holding a Senate seat in conservative Kansas that is in serious jeopardy.
Surrogates from across the party’s ideological spectrum have been in Kansas this week or are due here in coming days to stump with Roberts, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).
With fewer than six weeks until Election Day, Roberts has yet to consolidate Republican base voters behind his candidacy. Roberts won a bruising Aug. 5 primary with just 48 percent of the vote. The runner-up -- tea party-aligned Milton Wolf, who garnered 41 percent -- has yet to endorse Roberts. Bringing Palin into Kansas for a campaign stop was designed in large part to energize conservative activists about the incumbent.
As Palin and Roberts served pancakes and sausage links to a couple hundred supporters inside an old museum here, The Washington Post asked Palin why she thinks Wolf has not endorsed Roberts.
Roberts tried to bat away the question: “Oh, come on, man,” he told The Post.
But Palin answered: “I’m tea party, and I’m endorsing him. I don’t know a tea partier who isn’t endorsing him.”
In her remarks to the crowd earlier, Palin sought to sow doubts about Orman, who is campaigning as an independent “problem solver” and says he will caucus with whichever party has a “clear” majority following November’s midterm elections.
“Here in Independence, I know a little bit about going rogue,” Palin said. She added, “Anybody with a liberal record like Greg’s -- supporting Barack Obama, supporting Obamacare, supporting amnesty, supporting Harry Reid -- that’s not independence. That’s someone who’s trying to snooker you, Kansas!”
Orman campaign manager Jim Jonas responded to Palin’s visit with a statement: "Kansans know Washington is broken, and politicians like Senator Robert [sic] are part of the problem in Washington. Kansans don’t want another politician, they want a proven problem solver who will fix Washington’s broken system.”
Roberts basked in the energy of Palin’s visit to tiny Independence, an outpost on the rural plains of Eastern Kansas that was prosperous a half-century ago but now has many shuttered storefronts and fewer than 10,000 residents.
Palin wore a purple Kansas State sweatshirt for the occasion. Roberts played to the crowd: “Have you ever seen a Mama Grizzly dressed as a Wildcat?” Turning to Palin, he asked, “You wouldn’t be able to kick a field goal, would you?”
In Kansas, Republicans have been deeply divided this year over the reelection of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who has instituted some far-right tax and spending policies. Many prominent establishment Republicans took the unusual step of endorsing Brownback’s Democratic opponent.
Roberts said Palin had come to Kansas to show that the Republican Party was united.
“Every square inch of the Republican Party knows what’s at stake,” Roberts said. “We have to take the Senate back as a first step for turning our country around with Kansas values as opposed to what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
Talking with reporters following the event, Roberts said he joined Cruz’s filibuster to point out “what was going wrong with Obamacare,” not to try and shut down the government. Kasie Hunt of MSNBC pointed out that Dole’s message of bipartisanship and Palin’s message of fighting for principles conflicted.
“Whose side are you on?” she asked Roberts.
“Both,” Roberts said. “How ‘bout that?"