No Senate race has been more interesting in the last month than Kansas. A major-party nominee dropped out, apparently at the behest of the national party, opening the door for an unknown but well-funded independent to challenge the stumbling incumbent. Polling has showed independent Greg Orman with as much as a 10-point lead over Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS).
But you wouldn’t know that the fate of the Senate might be at stake with so little money coming in from outside groups.
The committees that must report their spending have expended less than $1 million combined in Kansas since Sept. 3, the day Taylor dropped out, according to a TPM review of Federal Election Committee data. By comparison, in another crucial Senate race in nearby Iowa, outside groups have spent $8.9 million, at a minimum, on television ads over the same period.
The inaction has left some operatives, particularly Republicans, stunned. Some GOP operatives see it as an indictment of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose job is to elect Republicans to the Senate. But even beyond the NRSC, the other big name outside groups on the right largely haven’t come to Roberts’s rescue. Whether that’s because he’s seen as a lost cause, or merely a lower priority than other races, it’s left Roberts particularly vulnerable to the current challenge from Orman.
Of course, Roberts’ race was never supposed to be competitive. But as the GOP looks for any and all routes to 51 Senate seats, losing one that it has held for 80-plus years seems unfathomable. Sure, no groups were planning to spend money in Kansas this year — but the new landscape has been set for more than month. So where is the money to stop the upset of the year from happening?
“The lack of spending from outside groups other than committees is what is so striking,” one Republican operative who tracks media buys told TPM. “No Democratic groups and minimal from Koch groups — and this race could decide control. And it’s not like it’s a super-expensive media market.”
Another GOP operative familiar with the race went a step further and called the lack of support for Roberts “malpractice” and pointed the finger particularly at the Koch community. They are not “emotionally engaged” because Roberts is, despite some recent rebranding, not the arch-conservative they typically favor, the operative said.
“I will tell you Roberts’ biggest problem on the outside: The Koch people don’t feel motivated to help Roberts too much. Everybody else says, ‘Listen, this is the one the Kochs have to do. It’s in their backyard,'” the operative said. “It really screws Roberts because he can’t win for losing. He’s got a Kansan at the senatorial committee, who for whatever strange reason isn’t getting engaged. He’s got these billionaires in Wichita spending money all over except their own state.”
“I think there’s a chance that some of them are trying to distance themselves from it because there’s a chance he could lose,” the operative continued. “There’s always this game of, ‘Well, that one, we haven’t really engaged in it. They should have been able to take care of themselves and they didn’t.'”
All of the outside money so far, though, has been for Roberts. Orman is at a disadvantage, considering Democratic groups seem unlikely to make any high-profile moves that would endanger his independent standing, which has so far allowed him to surge ahead of Roberts.
Freedom Action Partners Fund, one entity in the vast Koch brothers empire, has spent $519,000 on television ads. The NRA’s political victory fund along with the American Chemistry Council have also put down at least $150,000 each. But, at least so far, that’s it.
Americans for Prosperity, the main Koch-backed group that has pledged to spend $125 million this election cycle, confirmed to TPM that it has not spent any money yet in the Kansas Senate race. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded super PAC, also has not yet spent any money in Kansas, according to the FEC database. A spokesman did not return TPM’s request for comment.
Then there are the national committees. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s leaders have effectively ruled out expending significant resources in Kansas, as Politico reported the week after Taylor dropped out. The group did send in some top national operatives last month to resurrect the moribund Roberts campaign as it became clear he was in trouble.
NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring declined to comment to TPM about any of the committee’s upcoming plans.
“If you reported that the NRSC has not made an independent expenditure in Kansas, that’d be accurate,” he said in an email. “We don’t divulge or discuss future plans or strategies in the press.”
But help is presumably coming. The NRSC hosted a Sept. 23 fundraiser for Roberts that featured top party names including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and more are expected. The Republican National Committee has also spent at least $500,000 on the ground. Roberts is also working with his own cash advantage. He had $1.4 million on hand as of mid-July, compared to about $362,000 for Orman — and that was before anybody knew that Roberts needed rescuing. Orman is a wealthy investor, worth more than $21 million, but he has thus far contributed less than $50,000 to his own campaign.
Still, it has been more than a month since Taylor dropped out and the race’s landscape was dramatically altered. Roberts is still trailing and might be losing ground. The relative lack of movement, even by the NRSC, had a third long-time GOP operative baffled.
“Outside groups should be in, too, but they shouldn’t share the same blame as the NRSC,” the operative said. “Groups look to the party committee for a signal. If they don’t get it, it is hard to put the majority of blame on groups.”
“You would think in a world in which incumbents are your No. 1 priority, and what an embarrassment it would be, that just seems kind of nutty to me,” the operative continued. “Whatever the explanation is, it defies every kind of rule of committee politics.”