OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Republican leaders have a new regular stop on their travel schedules these days.
Iowa. New Hampshire. And … Kansas?
On this crisp October day, US Sen. Pat Roberts has brought in another member of the Republican Party’s All-Star campaign team to stand by his side and rally his base. Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Coburn, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Kansas’ own former senator Bob Dole have all shown up for an appearance with a friend in trouble.
On this day, Roberts’ guest is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the current chair of the House Budget Committee, likely the future chair of the even more powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and former running mate to presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The scene is a makeshift news conference inside a Ramada Inn here in Overland Park, just around the corner from the hotel’s pool and arcade.
In his opening statement during a news conference with Ryan, Roberts pauses to look into one of the cameras in the back of the room. His message to Kansas voters is quick and simple. It’s also quite possibly true.
“This race will determine the Senate majority,” he says to the cameras, with Ryan nodding alongside him. “And it is absolutely critical that we take back the Senate.”
According to The Huffington Post’s electoral model, Kansas has a better chance than any other state to single-handedly determine which party controls the Senate next year. This is problematic for Greg Orman, the businessman running as an independent in what recently became a head-to-head race against Roberts, who has been in Washington since 1981.
That’s because according to a recent poll from the Remington Research Group, 56% of Kansas voters prefer that Republicans control the US Senate next year. Just 35% feel it would be best if the Senate remained in Democratic hands.
“We’re going to win this race,” Roberts says. “And we’re going to stop the Obama agenda. And we’re going to do so because conservatives are uniting behind Kansas.”
Increasingly, that prediction looks likely to bear out.
It’s been quite a turnaround. Just three weeks ago, some polls showed Roberts trailing by double digits, and it looked as if Democratic candidate Chad Taylor’s decision to drop out of the race would hand Orman the seat.
But while Roberts scrambled the GOP jets to meet the challenge, Orman took the opposite approach, largely shunning the press and staying out of the spotlight.
The polls are now virtually tied.
Combined with a rejuvenated and revamped Roberts campaign, it’s clear the Republican has the momentum heading into the final two weeks of the race.
“Orman’s going to have an incredible tightrope walk to keep his coalition together,” Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider in September, upon releasing a poll showing good standing for Orman.
Six weeks later, that tightrope walk is looking more precarious than ever.
“It seems,” one Kansas Democratic strategist mused over the weekend, “like they’re blowing it.”
Orman, who entered the race in June, took advantage of the primary to boost his image with voters, spending $US2 million in positive ads about himself, according to a source with knowledge of the race. Neither Roberts’ nor Taylor’s campaigns laid a finger on him.
At the same time, Roberts was mired in a brutal primary that left him badly damaged among his own base. But he nevertheless seemed safe until Taylor dropped out, shaking up the final two months of the race and leaving Orman as Roberts’ sole challenger.
“That’s the No. 1 reason why you’re in Kansas today,” a source close to the Roberts campaign told Business Insider, referring to Orman’s original spending on ads. “If that didn’t happen, you would not be in Kansas. If he was spotted a half-million dollars vs. $US2 million, you would not be in Kansas.”
Orman slowly began winning voters over. By late August, after the primaries, polls showed him grabbing 23% of the vote in a three-way contest. Those same polls predicted that he’d win a head-to-head matchup, prompting calls for Taylor to step aside.
“I think some people saw it as a shot to do something historic,” one former adviser close to the Taylor campaign tells Business Insider.
But history hasn’t been cooperative. What seemed like such a sure bet once Taylor dropped out has looked less certain recently. Orman, who once led by as much as 10 points, has crumbled under more intense scrutiny from voters and the press.
Roberts has embarked on a furious campaign schedule, oftentimes appearing with the other GOP stalwarts. Along with Cruz and Coburn, he traversed the state in a bus last week.
Aside from public debates, meanwhile, Orman has largely kept quiet. When Business Insider contacted the Orman campaign ahead of our trip to Kansas, a representative originally responded that the campaign would be happy to try to make the candidate available for an interview. After multiple follow-up emails over the next two weeks, however, the Orman campaign concluded that an interview couldn’t be arranged.
The campaign also didn’t respond to multiple emails asking whether Orman would appear at any public events last week. On Thursday, he was in New York for a fundraiser co-hosted by Jonathan Soros, the son of George Soros.
Fortunes have changed for Roberts since national Republicans decided to take control, around the same time Taylor dropped out of the race. They dispatched longtime Republican strategist Chris LaCivita to lend a hand, and Republican operative Corry Bliss soon took charge of the campaign’s day-to-day operations.
In the weeks since, Roberts and his national Republican strategists have given the race a national focus. Roberts frequently mentions how the race is important to Senate control — Republicans need to swing six currently Democratic-held seats, plus hold all of their own seats, to win back the Senate.
His campaign, meanwhile, has painted Orman as out of touch, a wealthy businessman who would be a rubber-stamp for President Barack Obama in the Senate. Orman has not said who he’ll caucus with if elected, but his brief run as a Democrat in the 2008 Senate race has given Roberts’ campaign ammunition.
Orman has been hammered by revelations he sat on the board of a private-equity firm founded by Rajat Gupta, who was convicted in 2012 on charges of insider trading, and by ties to a group of big-spending donors trying to elect him to the Senate. Voters once viewed him by a widely favourable margin. But in the Remington poll, Orman’s favorability rating is down to 43%. And the number of voters who view him unfavorably is up to 40%.
“As we’ve begun to educate people about the real Greg Orman, his support has begun to rapidly decline,” the source close to the Roberts campaign told Business Insider.
There appears to be some truth to the claim. One voter, Sandra, a retired hospital worker and self-described Republican from the nearby small town of Paola, whom we met at a local McDonald’s, said she’d been a fan of Orman before the race turned into a two-person contest and became increasingly partisan.
She said there are certain advantages to having Roberts in a Republican-controlled Senate: his longevity and the fact that he would be in line for senior positions on certain committees. And she still feels like she doesn’t really know what Orman would do as a senator.
“What really got me is when the Democrat dropped out,” Sandra said. “It felt like it was coordinated. And I haven’t seen much from Orman over the past few weeks.”
One public event at which he did end up appearing — Saturday’s traditional Maple Leaf festival in Baldwin City — turned into an increasingly familiar round of poor headlines.
Orman ran up to a woman sitting on the sidelines of the parade who had called out his name. She wanted to know his position on abortion. She gave him a firm handshake as he tried to back away without a response, repeating that she wanted to ask him a question. He told her his position was on his website, where he notes that it’s “time for the government to move past this issue.”
That stance seems unlikely to satisfy many socially conservative Kansas voters. Mary, a retired teacher from Wichita, Kansas, who did not want to disclose her last name, said it’s too typical of Orman’s positions on a variety of issues.
“It seems like he’s taking a position while trying to not take a position,” she said.
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