The Kansas economy has lately been swelled by the expense accounts of big city newspaper reporters, as much of the national media have rushed to our usually overlooked state to cover its Senate race. There’s no wondering why there’s a national interest in the story, as it could wind up determining which party controls the Senate, and it provides some reason for the reporters to hope that it will be the Democrats who somehow prevail, and it is a most intriguing tale. The latest developments are more hopeful to the Republicans, however, and even the most partisan presses seem to have noticed.
Ordinarily even the reporters in Wichita and Topeka wouldn’t get out of their newsrooms to cover a Senate race in Kansas, which hasn’t sent anything other than a Republican to Washington since that one time everyone lost their minds early in the New Deal and Dust Bowl days, but this is not an ordinary year. Long-time incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts has been around a long enough time to have found disfavor with the Republican party’s anti-incumbent mood, and he barely survived a challenge to a little known and under-funded and underwhelming neophyte with a Facebook scandal only because a couple of crank candidates split the majority of the party’s throw-the-bums-out vote. Roberts then went into a three-way general election adorned with the out-of-touch and out-of-state label stuck upon him in the primary, hoping that another split of the anti-Roberts vote would save him, but the Democrats went to court insisting that they shouldn’t be compelled to run a candidate just because their party had gone to the expensive trouble of nominating one, and it was suddenly plausible that a well-heeled and largely self-financed independent candidate who was running on an appealing platform of common sense solutions and bipartisanship would win. That the most reliably Republican state in the Union over the past century and a half might allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate was a tantalizing possibility, and thus the influx of national media to Kansas.
What they’ve found, however, is an impressive all-out effort by the Republicans that casts doubt on the upset storyline. Local newscasts have been saturated with advertisements for Roberts, almost all of which make the essential point that a Republican loss could allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate, complete with scary pictures of the wildly unpopular President Barack Obama. There are also radio ads that combat the unfortunately true charge from the primary that Roberts hasn’t had a legitimate Kansas residence for years by touting his Kansas birth and Marine service and twangy-gravelly voice and weather-beaten visage and generally conservative voting record to remind voters that he’s still a Kansas kind of guy. Our internet browsing keeps popping up ads from the National Rifle Association touting Robert’s support for Second Amendment rights, the spots running on the local right-wing talk radio stations sound tailored to the concerns of those staunch conservatives who might be tempted to stay at home rather than for a man whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 86 percent, and such anti-establishment heroes as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have taken to the hustings to shore up the base. With the Democrats successfully suing in court to avoid the ignominy of a third place finish the anti-Roberts vote won’t be split, but that and the annoying minority of Kansas’ liberals full-throated support for the indendepent have made it easier to portray him as the de facto Democrat in a state where the Democrats are begging to be left of the ballot.
Meanwhile, independent Greg Orman’s campaign has seemed unready for both Roberts’ sudden aggressiveness and the inevitable scrutiny that falls upon a frontrunner even when he’s front-running against a Republican. At first he tried to dodge the question of whether he would caucus with the Democrats and potentially retain their control of the Senate, then said he’d join whichever side held a clear majority on his inauguration day, and is now trying out the line that it doesn’t much matter which party controls the Senate. He’s also dodged such obvious questions as whether he’d vote to repeal Obamacare, telling a random curious citizen at a small town parade that it’s an “interesting question,” and has otherwise been vague about what he considers a common sense and bipartisan solution on such issues as gun control and the XL Keystone Pipeline. He can’t deny his past campaign contributions to Obama and Democratic Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and other hated Democrats, or his past attempt to run for Senate as a Democrat, or the loud support he’s getting from that annoying minority of liberals, and in his rebuttal ads he’s been reduced to saying that Roberts’ criticism of the Obama agenda is “only half right” and that an equal portion of blame should be allotted to those who oppose that agenda. The argument is likely to fall flat with the vast majority of Kansas who express disapproval of Obama, even if it resonates with those confounded low-information voters who don’t stop to think about such claims, and if Orman has some third way that both parties will follow toward a golden age, he doesn’t explain it in these 30-second spots.
There’s still plenty of time left for an October surprise, and if it comes it will be during a most peculiar election season, but we sense that Kansas is turning back to its traditional Republican form.
— Bud Norman