After Democratic nominee Chad Taylor withdrew from the Kansas Senate race on Sept. 3, things looked pretty grim for Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). At his worst moment, in late September, he trailed independent candidate Greg Orman by more than 7 points on average. It looked like it would take a miracle for Roberts to avoid falling victim to the most surprising upset in 2014.
It took some work — national Republicans cleaned out the Roberts campaign and started over with their own people — and some time for outside money to come to his aid. But with less than two weeks to go, Roberts has climbed back into the race and holds a narrow 0.5-point edge, according to TPM’s PollTracker average.
He’s done it by playing hard to the conservative base that nearly ousted him in the Republican primary this summer and relentlessly pounding Orman as a closet liberal who would boost Obama’s agenda. But therein lies a risk. Roberts has rebounded by going hard right — but he has to hold onto some moderates to counter Orman’s appeal to the middle and his nearly universal support among Democrats.
It’s a narrow path to victory, everybody watching the race agrees. But it’s a much more realistic one than anyone would have thought a month ago.
Just one day after Taylor dropped out, the National Republican Senatorial Committee took over the Roberts campaign. Top fixer Chris LaCivita of 2004 Swift Boat Veterans fame was brought in as a consultant and GOP operative Corey Bliss assumed campaign manager duties from a longtime Roberts aide, Leroy Towns.
Sen. Pat Roberts, right, and Greg Orman during their second debate, in Wichita. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal).
Horror stories soon emerged about the moribund Roberts campaign before national Republicans intervened. It was known that Orman had been up with TV ads while Roberts aired nothing after his Aug. 5 primary win. But then there were leaks about, for example, the Roberts campaign office not having Internet access.
“I think the reports that there was no campaign were exaggerated, but I would say that key elements of a campaign were missing,” one Republican operative told TPM. Basic things like a research book on Orman or outreach to some of the conservative groups who backed Milton Wolf, Roberts’ primary challenger, hadn’t been done.
“We started in a bit of a hole here,” the operative said.
A second GOP strategist told TPM that the Internet access anecdote in particular had been exaggerated — but agreed the campaign had needed to be revamped with “a refined message and aggressive campaigning.”
“He’s been busting his ass and risen to the challenge,” the strategist said of Roberts, pointing out that the senator raised $1.6 million in September after a paltry $60,000 in August.
That, and a belated infusion of some outside money, has allowed Roberts to hammer Orman as a closet liberal on the airwaves and the stump. Almost every ad has cited Orman’s brief 2008 Senate run as a Democrat and his previous campaign donations to President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In some pro-Roberts ads, the “O” in Orman has been morphed into the famous Obama “O”. Roberts has developed a favorite refrain during debates that Orman is a Democrat by “word, deed and donation.”
Greg Orman. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel).
Roberts, meanwhile, has raised the specter of “national socialism” on the campaign trail and stumped with tea party stalwarts like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The message has been distilled to: “A vote for Orman is a vote for President Obama and Harry Reid.”
“You’ve seen the Roberts campaign get much more aggressive and show message discipline,” Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, told TPM. “It’s been night and day.”
Polling suggests Roberts has shored up support on the right. Two September surveys that showed Orman with a sizable lead found Roberts taking 66 and 61 percent of self-identified Republicans. A new poll this week, which said the race was tied, showed Roberts is up to 76 percent of GOP voters. Those close to the Roberts campaign think they need 75 percent of Republicans to win.
“He’s unified the more conservative elements of the party,” one of the Republican operatives said. “It’s the moderates who are pissed at (embattled GOP Gov. Sam Brownback) who have yet to fully come on.”
So that will be the balance Roberts needs to strike in the final few weeks to hold off Orman and win re-election: Getting enough moderate GOP voters, paired with the now-converted conservatives, to push him over. To appeal to the former group, his campaign has gone on the air with an endorsement from popular former Sen. Bob Dole, while 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have campaigned on the ground.
Those who have helped to rehabilitate Roberts’ campaign know that they “are not out of the woods yet,” as one of the strategists put it. But they feel optimistic after the situation looked so dire a month ago.
“He’s got to walk a fine line because he sees where Brownback is and he knows what can happen when you piss off the moderates to cozy up to the right,” Rackaway said. “He hasn’t angered the moderate wing of the party in the way that Brownback has, so he doesn’t have much work to do with those folks in the middle as he does with the base.”