How conservative Kansas could save Senate for Democrats

In one of the US’s most Republican states, voters poised to elect an Independent senator

Republican US senator Pat Roberts cradles a baby after speaking at a Conservative Revival in Gardner, Kansas. Photograph: Dave Kaup/Reuters

Republican US senator Pat Roberts cradles a baby after speaking at a Conservative Revival in Gardner, Kansas. Photograph: Dave Kaup/Reuters

 

Herbie Hopper is standing on a busy roadside in Wichita, Kansas, holding one end of a large yellow flag. It shows a picture of a coiled rattlesnake ready to pounce, above the words, “Don’t Tread On Me”.

This is a Gadsden flag, named after a South Carolina patriot from the American revolution. A libertarian symbol, it is a favourite of the Tea Party, sometimes also known as the “Taxed Enough Already” movement. The party, whose name is a reference to the 1773 Boston revolutionary protest against the British, believes that the US government has grown too big and too intrusive.

Hopper is offering his support outside the Wichita Area Builders Association, where, inside, the 78-year-old Kansas senator Pat Roberts is launching a statewide bus tour in his campaign to win a fourth six-year term in the US Senate in the November 4th midterm elections.

This may be the home town of Barack Obama’s mother, but it is a Republican stronghold in a heartland of American conservatives. Roberts’s re-election battle is one of the most unusual races in these congressional elections. Kansas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, but Republicans in this dark-red agricultural state are nervous this time around, not because of the threat from their long-time political rivals but from an Independent, the businessman Greg Orman.

The unthinkable

A year ago, Republicans presumed Kansas was a sure thing for the party, but the unthinkable has become possible: the Sunflower State may send its first non-Republican to the Senate in 82 years.

The Republicans are slight favourites to retake the senate, a result that would make President Obama’s final two years in power even more tortuous in terms of getting legislation passed by Congress. However, in the party’s calculations for achieving its goal, Roberts was assumed to be unbeatable.

It requires a net gain of six seats to win a senate majority that would most likely also mean having a stranglehold on the US Congress, given that it is expected to retain control of the House of Representatives. Three seats – South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia – are seen as guaranteed gains; 10 others, out of the remaining 33 seats in play, are thought to be close. In seven of those latter races, Republicans are trying to unseat Democrats. “It would be a shame if we were the ones who dropped the ball and let the Democrats maintain control of the Senate,” says Hopper.

FiveThirtyEight, the political polling website run by forecaster Nate Silver, predicts that the Republicans’ chances of taking the Senate would rise from 57 per cent to 66 per cent if Roberts wins in Kansas.

“It would be the height of irony [if] the fate of the United States Senate was decided by electing a non-Republican in perhaps the most Republican state in the country. That would be one for the history books,” says Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman for Kansas and a secretary for agriculture under president Bill Clinton.

New polls, for CNN and Fox News, show Roberts in a slight lead over Orman, by 1 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. But these latest polls are a surprising reversal of the figures in previous weeks, when the veteran senator trailed Orman, in one instance by as much as 10 points.

 

Rallying the GOP

These earlier polls prompted GOP headquarters in Washington to dispatch new campaign strategists and a parade of prominent Republican figures – including Senator John McCain, his 2008 vice-presidential choice, Sarah Palin, and Bob Dole, the 91-year-old former presidential nominee who represented Kansas in Congress for 35 years – to shore up Roberts’s troubled campaign and rally the grassroots.

 

The latest big-name Republican to show up was Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, a Tea Party poster boy who scored a hit among conservatives with his 21-hour senate filibuster against Obamacare, the president’s signature healthcare legislation, just over a year ago. Launching Roberts’s bus tour, Cruz – appearing alongside the retiring Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn – urged conservatives and independents to go out and vote for Roberts in an election that could be decided by voter turnout, given that midterm elections fail to attract the same level of interest as presidential races.

One of the more conservative US senators, Roberts has suffered from a sharp shift to the right in the Kansas state government. Conservative Republicans have ousted moderates in a state that has traditionally sent moderate and pragmatic politicians, such as Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, to the senate.

Since 2012, sweeping anti-abortion measures passed by the Republican-controlled state government have alienated women voters and severe tax-cutting has harmed the state’s fiscal position.

“Having an Independent on there makes it easier for moderate Republicans to vent a little bit of their anger but not have to vote for a Democrat,” says Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in the Kansas state capital, Topeka.

Orman (45) has not said what party he would side with or caucus with if elected to the senate, but has stated that he would vote with the majority. Roberts has used this to paint him as a Democrat in disguise, pointing out that Orman has donated money to the Democrats and voted for Obama. (In fact, Orman, a multimillionaire, has given money to both parties.) He mocks his rival by saying that, given his potential support for either Democrats or Republicans, he “really is an ‘or man’”.

The fight for this seat in this conservative state was thrown open in September when the Democratic candidate, Chad Taylor, dropped out, with the encouragement of party colleagues who saw a standalone Independent as having a better chance of defeating Roberts.

 

Tarnished

Roberts has been tarnished by questions about his residency in Kansas. As anti-Washington sentiment ran high among conservatives, he was lambasted by a Tea Party rival in the bitterly fought Republican primary as being a creature of the capital and out of touch with Kansans.

 

Roberts did himself no favours when asked about the room he rents in a supporter’s house in Dodge City, Kansas, which he uses as his voting address when he isn’t in his long-term home in northern Virginia, outside Washington. “I have full access to the recliner,” he joked in an interview with the New York Times earlier this year.

His Republican challenger, Milton Wolf, used the quip to devastating effect in campaign ads that portrayed the older Roberts as removed from Kansas voters. Wolf even brought a La-Z-Boy reclining seat to campaign events. Roberts beat Wolf in August, but the victory was hardly convincing: in a state that he has represented for more than three decades, he won less than half the Republican votes in the primary.

Orman capitalised on the GOP fratricide by defining himself as something other than a career politician. He has made much of being an Independent who can steer politics away from the partisan sniping that has gridlocked the US Congress.

Roberts has chosen to campaign on the greater fear of Republicans that the party’s majority in the senate rests on the voters of Kansas. “The road to a Republican majority again runs right through Kansas, and a vote for me is for that Republican majority and to save our Republic,” he said at his launch in Wichita.

 

New blood

Some Roberts supporters would prefer new blood but their fear of a Democrat-controlled senate outweighs their dislike for Roberts. “I am no great fan of Roberts. He is a good man, who has served us long. It’s time for new blood, probably,” says Herbie Hopper.

 

The Republican governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, a former senator, is also seeking re-election, but has trailed Democratic rival Paul Davis in most polls. Brownback’s Republican project in Kansas, which he once called a “real live experiment,” has proven unpopular, falling well short of its goals.

Even moderate Republicans have joined the backlash against Brownback’s proudly conservative policies, which are threatening to leave the state budget in deficit and jeopardise funding for education. Liberals in Lawrence – a college town, just west of Kansas City, where Davis has lived for many years – mockingly dub the state under his leadership “Brownbackistan”.

“For me, it’s personal,” says Eric Wolf, a volunteer for the United Teachers of Wichita, who is holding an Orman placard outside the launch of the Roberts bus tour. “My father was a teacher right here in Wichita for many years. They worked hard for teachers to be treated with respect and earn a decent living . Brownback has torn all that down; he is cutting education. You don’t eat your seed corn. You got to plant for future generations, and the schools are where we plant.”

Another Orman supporter, Mary Ware, a member of Women for Kansas, say she is upset that Roberts voted against the Violence Against Women Act and wants to slash funding for food stamps for the poor. In her view, Kansas has veered too far to the conservative right, especially on issues that concern women most.

“The folks we have now are much too extreme. We are about being moderate and building a coalition,” she says. “The only thing I agree with Roberts on is that this is a very important race.”