Despite tough primary, Sen. Pat Roberts’ path to victory in November smoother than opponents’

Sen. Pat Roberts held off a challenge from tea party-backed Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist, to win the August primary.
Sen. Pat Roberts held off a challenge from tea party-backed Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist, to win the August primary. The Wichita Eagle

Pat Roberts may be hobbled after a tough Republican primary – which saw the U.S. senator win less than 50 percent of the vote – but he’ll still have the easiest path to victory in his four-way race in November, political scientists say.

Roberts, R-Dodge City, faces challenges from Democrat Chad Taylor, the district attorney for Shawnee County, and independent candidate Greg Orman, an Olathe businessman with deep pockets and a message that’s tailor-made for moderates.

Libertarian candidate Randy Batson also could draw votes.

Roberts held off a challenge from tea party-backed Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist, to win Tuesday’s primary. Roberts pulled in 48 percent of the vote to Wolf’s 41 percent, with two other candidates splitting the remaining ballots.

Orman’s campaign called Roberts’ victory “stunningly weak” in a release the following day, noting that a majority of Republicans voted against the incumbent.

“Roberts outspent the competition by more than two to one but could only garner 48 percent of the Republican vote, the lowest percentage ever recorded for an incumbent Senate candidate in Kansas,” the release said.

The primary showed weak support within the party for Roberts, but conservatives who gravitated toward Wolf aren’t likely to go rushing to either Orman or Taylor, according to Mark Peterson, a professor of political science at Washburn University.

“The dilemma for the Senate race is you’ve essentially got three candidates, all of which could probably get somewhere around 30 percent of the votes that are cast,” Peterson said in a phone call. “In that situation, you know, if Pat can allure the tea party-istas back or if he can paint Orman and Taylor with the Obama brush we could wind up with Pat Roberts winning his senatorial election with somewhere between 35 or 40 percent of the vote.”

“Roberts, at the moment, has the 10-yard head start,” he added, noting the senator’s name recognition and Republicans’ registration advantage.

Two opponents

Roberts attacked Orman as a Democrat in disguise in his victory speech Tuesday night.

“With not one, but two opponents, I will have the distinction of being the only Senate candidate this year forced to fight two liberal Democrats in the general election, one masquerading as an independent,” Roberts told a crowd of supporters in Overland Park. “Help us replace the Obama way with the Kansas way.”

Orman considered a run against Roberts as a Democrat in 2008, forming an exploratory committee. He has also contributed to Democrats in the past, including $4,600 to Obama for America in 2007 before the Democratic primary for president.

“I’ve given contributions to politicians in both parties and generally I’ve been disappointed with the results,” Orman said. “I think there was a hope on a part of a lot of people that Obama was going to be the kind of post-partisan leader he talked about in his campaign, but as things turned out he was far more of a politician and less of a leader than he said he’d be.”

Orman said that after 2010 he decided that the only way to improve the country was by working outside of the two-party system. He calls himself “fiscally responsible” and “socially tolerant.”

“The Democrats started calling me a conservative. The Republicans – Sen. Roberts in particular – started calling me a liberal. It’s clear that even on that issue the two parties can’t agree,” Orman said. “I don’t know how many liberals out there are advocating for a balanced budget, advocating for entitlement reform, advocating for tax code reform.”

“You know Sen. Roberts is just pulling out an old, tired attack line and I think he needs to learn some new words,” he said.

Orman vs. Taylor

Orman and Taylor are more likely to take potential voters away from each other than Roberts, Peterson said. Orman has outraised Taylor significantly – $670,000 to $130,000 as of July – and has been running TV ads across the state. But Taylor will have a built-in base of registered Democrats that will pull the lever for him because of the “D” next to his name.

“They’re probably going to flip the lever for Taylor. But without a lot of name ID he’s probably not going to resonate very well with the independents and he may not be very well-known among the moderate Republicans,” Peterson said.

Despite his party affiliation, Taylor often sounds like a moderate Republican when discussing policy. He describes himself as a “fiscal conservative” and “social moderate,” and his big issue is pushing for a balanced budget.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal,” Taylor said. He would support a balanced budget amendment, but said the first step is for Congress to return to the ‘paygo’ budgeting rules, which were in effect from 1991 to 2002, when they expired, and left the country with a more than $200 billion surplus at the end of 2000.

“The ‘paygo’ budgeting rules were so brilliant and so simple at the same time, because it was a dollar for dollar allocation. If you want to increase spending in this bucket you have to identify where it’s coming from,” Taylor said. “And so you’ve got that transparency that’s sorely lacking right now.”

Cold cases

Taylor’s proudest accomplishment as Shawnee County DA has been the founding of a cold case unit, which he said has brought closure to more than a dozen families of murder victims.

However, his tenure as DA has not been without controversy.

In 2011, while facing a budget cut, the DA’s office steered misdemeanor cases toward the city of Topeka’s municipal court system, including domestic violence cases. “We knew with having our resources cut our ability to do that would be limited,” Taylor explained. “So what we did was notify the city of Topeka, “This is on you, you need to start handling cases that originate inside of the city’…The cases that we had original jurisdiction of, we still prosecuted those.”

However, the city chose to decriminalize domestic violence to send the cases back to the DA’s office, which sparked national attention and criticism.

Taylor said no domestic violence cases went unprosecuted. “We took those cases back in and put them back into the queue and prosecuted them,” he said.

Last year the city of Topeka recriminalized domestic violence.

In addition to that controversy, two former employees filed a federal lawsuit against Taylor for workplace discrimination based on race and gender in 2012.

Taylor is being represented by Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He said the lion’s share of the allegations have been dropped, and said he was confident he would prevail in court.

Leroy Towns, Roberts’ campaign manager, dismissed Taylor as a threat in a phone call.

“He’s on the Democratic side of the ticket. And I think he’s going to have some serious trouble,” Towns said, noting the controversy over domestic violence in Shawnee County. “He’d like to paint himself as a moderate Democrat, whatever that is, but he also is in the same bathtub, I think, with Greg Orman.”

Testing Roberts

Taylor challenged Roberts to 105 debates, one in each county, back in February. He is still calling on the senator to accept his challenge. He said he got the idea from talking to voters who were tired of seeing negative ads on television during campaign season.

“What they continued to tell us was, ‘Why won’t people just stand up and tell us what they would do as the United States senator instead of tearing their opponents limb from limb on television. We’re tired of it,’” Taylor said. “I think it’s important that we go to the communities of the people whose votes we’re asking for and stand on the stage side by side and tell them.”

During the primary Wolf attacked Roberts for living most of the year in northern Virginia. The issue is unlikely to go away as the race moves into the general election. Roberts promised Tuesday night to go on a listening tour of the state. He flew back to the Washington, D.C. area following his victory, according to his campaign manager.

“He went back home for two days or three to rest. I think he’s going to come back here the first of next week,” Towns said. “He’s going to spend most of August out here.”

Towns caught himself calling northern Virginia Roberts’ “home” and clarified.

“Home is probably not the right word in terms of the way the campaign’s been. But anyway he went back there. It’s where his family is at the moment. But he does intend to spend every moment between now and the election in Kansas, I think, that he can,” Towns said.

Farm bill vote

Both Orman and Taylor have criticized Roberts for voting against the farm bill. Taylor said it showed that Roberts was disconnected from the needs of the state.

Towns said Roberts voted against the farm bill because it was flawed, and that it should not be seen as a sign that he’s lost touch with the needs of farmers. Many Republicans opposed the bill, which includes agriculture subsidies and crop insurance for farmers, because it did not cut more from the federal food stamps program.

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said this election is testing Roberts, who was first elected to Congress in 1980, in ways that previous elections haven’t. “Roberts is not used to being vulnerable,” Smith said.

However, he said that the smart money remains on Roberts to pull out a victory. “There’s no doubt that incumbent Republicans got beaten up in their own primary Tuesday, but that Democratic label’s still a liability in Kansas,” Smith said.

Orman said the door is open for an independent candidate, noting that unaffiliated voters, who make up about 31 percent of the voting pool, outnumber Democrats, who are about 24 percent.

“We do have an independent streak in Kansas,” Orman said. “The way I look at the race I actually think our message appeals to fiscally responsible Democrats. I think it appeals to independents. I think it appeals to fiscally responsible and socially tolerant Republicans. And as we look at the math on that … something like 60 percent of the electorate is in that number and is very persuadable and very sick and tired of what’s going on in Washington with the partisan politics.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.