Sen. Pat Roberts touted his experience while challenger Greg Orman claimed his independence as the two met head-to-head in debate at the Kansas State Fair.
Orman threw the opening punch, saying “our system of government is broken, and we all know it.”
He said voters have been “sending the worst of both parties” to Washington and called for an end to “bitter partisans who care more about pleasing extremists than they do solving problems.”
Roberts repeatedly sought to tie Orman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, mentioning Reid, a Democrat, in his answer to almost every question.
Because of recent developments in the race, Roberts versus Orman is attracting national attention as a contest that could flip the balance of power in the Senate.
Roberts is committed to the Republican cause and stands to gain the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee if the GOP can gain the majority and unseat Reid. Orman has said he plans to caucus with the majority, whoever wins it, and hasn’t committed to picking a side if it’s a tie.
Roberts said that’s a big difference.
He said he’s the only candidate who can “make a Republican majority, put Harry Reid out to pasture and get things done.”
And he disputed Orman’s independence, saying Orman has said he voted for President Obama in 2008 and donated money to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Reid.
“He is not (independent), he is liberal Democrat by philosophy,” Roberts said.
Orman shot back that he has donated to politicians in both parties and has been a Republican, a Democrat and an independent.
The pair met in front of a raucous crowd of about 2,500 at the State Fair’s Bretz and Young Injury Lawyers Arena. Roberts frequently went past the scheduled time limit on answers, prompting Orman supporters to try to shout him down each time it happened.
The candidate who wasn’t there played almost as big a role as the two who were.
The debate took place against the backdrop of a chaotic week that saw the Democrat in the race, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, attempt to take his name off the ballot to give Orman – who has been surging in polls and fund raising – a clear shot at Roberts.
Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach ruled Taylor couldn’t get off the ballot; Taylor is challenging that decision, saying that Kobach’s own election director told him he had taken all the proper steps to withdraw.
Roberts noted that Taylor consulted with Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill before dropping out of the race and said it was the first time he’d ever seen Democrats working hard to get a Democrat off the ballot.
“You know something fishy is going on,” Roberts said, saying McCaskill’s intervention was reminiscent of the pro-slavery Missourians who battled free-state Kansans before and during the Civil War.
Orman replied that it was “the first time I’ve heard a Republican complaining about disenfranchising Democratic voters,” a key GOP argument for keeping Taylor on the ballot against his and his party’s wishes.
The debate came two days after Roberts sidelined his campaign manager and longtime political confidant Leroy Towns and put his campaign in the hands of Corry Bliss and Chris LaCivita, national consultants with a reputation for scorched-earth campaigns.
On the issues, possibly the biggest clash was over gun control.
Orman said he is a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter. But he came out in favor of closing the so-called gun show loophole, which allows people to buy guns while bypassing the background check they’d need to pass if they bought a gun from a licensed dealer.
“I don’t think that having a loophole that allows people who couldn’t get guns at a legitimate gun dealer to get them otherwise is sound policy,” Orman said. “I just don’t think it makes sense to make it easy for a convicted felon or someone who’s under a restraining order for domestic abuse to be able to walk into a gun show and easily get a gun.”
Roberts’ response: “Well, there you have it. He’s for the Second Amendment, but more federal controls, more federal requirements. I’m for the Second Amendment; I’ve always stood for the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.”
The two also jabbed at each other over national defense.
“The first thing we do is exempt the military from the sequester,” said Roberts, referring to the automatic spending cuts that took effect when Congress was unable to reach accord on a budget.
“That means more money for our troops,” Roberts said. “We are now at lower levels than we’ve ever been since World War II.”
Roberts said the Obama administration hasn’t made an effective response to the growth of the brutal Islamic State known as ISIS that has taken over some war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria.
Orman agreed the sequester was a real problem with regard to the military but blamed congressional dysfunction – and by extension Roberts – for it.
“Sequester is the greatest example of Washington’s failure to get its act together,” Orman said. “Sequester was the penalty provision that was never supposed to happen.”
ISIS strategy, marijuana laws
Roberts and Orman agreed that the president needs to develop a clearer strategy on ISIS and go to Congress for approval.
But they differed on who was at fault for the problem.
Roberts blamed Obama entirely, saying the president has been “leading by following” and that left a power vacuum for ISIS to take advantage of.
“Leading by following has caused all these voids and caused all these bad people who have filled these voids,” Roberts said.
Orman took a longer view, placing some of the blame for the rise of ISIS on former president George W. Bush.
“You know, I think we can go back to the beginning of the Iraq war and say that a lot of mistakes were made on both sides of the aisle,” Orman said. “I think ‘mission accomplished’ was a bad idea.”
Asked whether marijuana should be legalized, Roberts said that wasn’t a federal issue.
“That’s a state issue. If you want to get a Rocky Mountain high, go west,” he said.
But marijuana remains a illegal drug under federal law, even though Colorado and other states have dropped or eased state laws against it.
Orman said the federal government’s war on drugs has been going on since the Nixon administration and “doesn’t seem to be working.”
“As the senator has mentioned, we do have states that have started to work with different policies as it relates to legalization, and I think it would be prudent for us to take a step back and watch what happens in those states before we determine how we want to change federal policy,” he said.
Roberts’ residency, the issue that dominated physician Milton Wolf’s Republican primary challenge to Roberts, came up briefly in the debate.
Wolf had pounded the senator during the primary season as out of touch with Kansas and too tied to the home he owns in the Washington D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Va.
Saturday, Roberts said he has probably visited the state’s 105 counties more times than anyone else alive, including iconic former Sen. Bob Dole.
Roberts owns rental property in Dodge City and rents a room there from a campaign supporter for when he’s in that part of the state.
Orman challenged that: “I suspect I’ve been to Dodge City more this year than you have, I’ve been there four times,” he said.
Replied Roberts: “I’ve been about seven, so you’re wrong.”
“I’ll wait for the camera roll on that,” Orman responded.
Wolf attended the Senate debate but would not answer any questions about it afterwards.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or email@example.com.