KINSLEY, Kan. — Shirley Deege is a proud Republican. For as long as she can remember, the nurse has been voting for Pat Roberts — in the 1980s, when he represented a vast patchwork of dusty plains hamlets in the House; in 1996, when he first ran for the Senate; and every six years after that.
“Looking back over my life, I’m wondering, ‘What major things has he done for Kansas?’ I’m coming up empty,” said Deege, 53, as she sipped coffee while waiting for Roberts to arrive at the county fairgrounds in Kinsley this week.
“He’s spent so much time in Washington,” she added. “I know he has a house in Virginia. Dodge City is supposed to be his home, just up the highway, but I don’t hear of him coming back too much.”
But this week, Roberts came back. His reelection campaign, which was supposed to be a sure bet in this heavily Republican state, has transformed into the most surprisingly close Senate race in the nation. Roberts showed up Tuesday morning in Deege’s home town of Kinsley (population 1,457) with Robert J. Dole, 91, a former Senate Republican leader, presidential nominee and ailing Kansas legend, who is in the midst of a farewell tour of his native state.
The duo were incongruous at times: While Dole reminisced about brokering bipartisan deals, Roberts dabbled with a newfound tea party message — branding Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) as “a dictator” and warning of President Obama’s “national socialism.”
The geriatric rescue mission floundered, as far as Deege was concerned. She asked Roberts a question about legislation he had been unable to pass — prompting a Roberts tirade about Obama — then cornered him afterward for a chat and a handshake. Still, she said, “I’m on the fence.”
Many Kansans feel the same about Roberts after his 33 years in elected office. Many more want him gone, even if it means replacing him with a political enigma named Greg Orman — a wealthy investor running as an independent who has declined to say whether he would caucus with Republicans or Democrats.
The backlash against Roberts stems not from any single issue — ideologically, he has followed his party’s shift to the right — but from a widespread feeling that he has grown too insular in Washington and fallen out of touch.
“I’m 78 years old, and I’ve been voting for [Roberts] since the beginning,” Darrel Miller, a retired wheat farmer, said after seeing Roberts in Kinsley. “I don’t wish him any ill will. I just think we need a change.”
The restive electorate fueling Orman’s surge caught Roberts by surprise and thrust his reelection into jeopardy. A Kansas Supreme Court ruling last week allowing the Democratic nominee, Chad Taylor, to withdraw his name from the ballot further increased the risk to Roberts.
Orman said in an interview that Roberts has taken “a sharp turn to the right” to placate conservative activists, putting him out of step with most Kansans.
“Pat made the assumption that all he had to do was win the primary and then they were going to coronate him in the general election,” Orman said. “He’s emblematic in my mind of what’s wrong with Washington today.”
All year, Republican officials have grumbled that Roberts was running a lethargic, halfhearted campaign. He narrowly survived an Aug. 5 primary against Milton Wolf, a tea-party-backed radiologist and political neophyte who garnered 41 percent of the vote. Wolf has yet to endorse Roberts.
Roberts has made few contacts with voters, such as door knocks and phone calls, and has no significant volunteer corps, Kansas Republican officials said. One can drive for hours along state highways without seeing a Roberts placard among the many other Republican yard signs.
To complicate things further, the state GOP is in disarray over Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who is also up for reelection. After Brownback instituted far-right policies, more than 100 prominent Republicans endorsed his Democratic opponent.
With just two months until Election Day, the national Republican Party forced Roberts to replace his campaign leadership with out-of-state operatives, who began an urgent course correction.
The campaign started airing TV ads last week and scoured Orman’s business dealings for fresh lines of attack, while Republican super PACs will fund an anti-Orman air assault. Roberts has been on the phone trying to woo Wolf’s supporters and consolidate Republicans behind him, while stepping up his schedule of public events.
“A vote for me is a vote to change the Senate back to a Republican majority,” Roberts told reporters in Kinsley. “We’ll get things done, and it means a stop to the Obama agenda.”
Roberts is flying in a motley crew of GOP surrogates — including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — to stir suspicions about Orman and convince voters that a GOP majority hinges on Roberts’s reelection.
Dole, slightly slumped in an armchair, whispered criticism about Orman to folks as they posed for pictures with him after a Monday event with Roberts. “We can’t take over the Senate with a loose cannon,” he said. “That other guy is not an independent.”
Although the Roberts campaign hopes to aim the klieg lights on Orman, many voters view this election as a referendum on Roberts.
“He’s basically furniture in the Senate, and the people in Kansas know that,” said national GOP strategist John Weaver, a former McCain adviser. “You could give the average Kansan 24 hours to come up with something Pat Roberts has done in the Senate, and after 24 hours, even the crickets would be standing there befuddled.”
To energize Republican base voters, Roberts is turning up the rhetorical heat. At a stop in Dodge City on Monday, he said he wants to put Reid “in the cloak room, maybe put him in the closet.” Roberts also told the crowd that “our country is headed toward national socialism.”
The next morning in Kinsley, Roberts again invoked “socialism.” When a reporter asked whether he truly thinks the president is a socialist, Roberts replied, “I believe that the direction he is heading the country is more like a European socialistic state, yes. You can’t tell me anything that he has not tried to nationalize.”
On the stump, Roberts exhibits “this grumpy-old-man persona,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “This is a classic guy who, at age 78, is running for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate and does not have any great rationale.”
Officially, Roberts’s home is Dodge City, a windy, dusty Old West town. But, as the New York Times reported in February, he does not own a home there. Roberts lists the home of campaign donors as his official address in Dodge City, which is where he said he slept Monday night.
Roberts lives in Alexandria, Va., where he raised his three children and where his wife, Franki, works as a real estate broker. He has bristled at the scrutiny of his residency.
“I’m from Dodge City, and quite frankly, I’m damn proud of it,” Roberts snapped at reporters during Monday night’s visit to Dodge City.
Compounding matters, Roberts’s Preserving America’s Traditions political action committee (PATPAC) is registered in Tampa, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. FEC records show that similar PACs for Brownback and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) are based in Kansas.
A Roberts aide said that Roberts’s leadership PAC is based out of state because its treasurer, Nancy Watkins, lives in Florida.
Prominent Republicans have been agog that after residency issues felled longtime Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in 2012, Roberts did not get his own house in order.
“Lugar demonstrated, ‘Okay, this is suddenly an issue,’ ” said Robert F. Bennett, a former Republican senator from Utah who served alongside Lugar and Roberts. “Fix it. Fix it right now. That’s the time he should have acted on it. It’s just a matter of inertia — ‘Well, this is the way I’ve been doing it in my 27 years or however long I’ve been in Congress. It’s never hurt me and it won’t hurt me now.’ Yes, it will, Pat. The rules have changed.”
As Roberts campaigned with Dole at a shopping mall in Dodge City this week, a man in the back of the crowd asked, “Can you tell us why Virginia would get three senators and Kansas only one?”
Roberts stayed silent and let Dole answer by noting that each state has two senators.
The two men tried to appear chummy: Dole calls Roberts “my go-to guy,” while Roberts calls Dole “a mentor of mine, a friend of mine, a brother of mine.”
But theirs is hardly a brotherly relationship. In late 2012, Dole personally urged Roberts to support a U.N. treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities, and came onto the Senate floor in his wheelchair to plea for passage. Roberts, siding with tea-party-backed senators, voted it down.
“People thought, ‘Gosh, why couldn’t he have done that for Bob?’ ” said former GOP senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, whose seat Roberts now holds. Among some prominent Republicans in Kansas, she said, “that just triggered an emotional disappointment with Pat. I think that carried on and has not been changed.”