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Chapman Rackaway: Roberts has challenges in next re-election bid

  • Published Sunday, March 10, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Most Kansans probably would think that the very definition of a safe Senate seat is that of Pat Roberts. The three-term Kansas senator has won every election he contested and has never earned less than 60 percent of the vote. Roberts is also a respected voice in the Senate, with history as chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Roberts likely will win again, but is facing several challenging realities that might make his 2014 re-election effort his toughest yet.

One challenge is that Roberts lost his senior position on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Membership shifts put a more senior Republican on the panel. That might hurt Roberts’ fundraising related to agricultural interests.

Roberts’ age may work against him as well. If re-elected, he will be 84 at the end of his next term.

Another potential challenge is that Roberts is the second-most anonymous senator in the country, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. More than 40 percent of Kansans surveyed could not identify Roberts.

Roberts can take solace in that his 31 percent approval rating was higher than his 28 percent disapproval rating, and that other elected officials in the state have even lower numbers. Another Roberts advantage is that there is no likely Democrat to challenge him in the general election.

Roberts’ toughest challenge is the possibility of a primary opponent on the right. Club for Growth, emboldened by victories like the Kansas primary purge of moderate Republicans last year, is soliciting names of moderate Republicans in Congress to recruit competitors against. The group recently launched PrimaryMyCongressman.com, where voters can submit the name of their Republican member of Congress for a primary challenger. An aggressive self-described conservative may decide to ride that wave into a challenge for Roberts’ seat.

According to the PPP survey, just 42 percent of Republicans would vote to renominate Roberts today, against 34 percent who would prefer someone more conservative. However, likely names do not compare well. Roberts has big leads over specific GOP alternatives Public Policy Polling tested – a 21-point edge against former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, 31 points over Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, and 36 points over Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Roberts can take solace in powerful allies, having the state GOP machinery behind him. Former Brownback aide David Kensinger could serve as Roberts’ most powerful ally in 2014. The support of Kensinger likely would deter the strongest of challengers – who learned the lesson to not challenge the governor and his allies – keeping the senator’s seat safe.

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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