Pat Roberts won a fourth term in the U.S. Senate and probably the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, despite a strong challenge from independent candidate Greg Orman.
Orman, who gave Roberts the strongest challenge of his three-decade congressional career, was running about even or a little ahead in the state’s more populous counties and took an early lead Election Night, but didn’t appear to have enough cushion to hold off the surge once western Kansas returns started piling up for the Republican Roberts.
Roberts, who was heavily financed and supported by the national Republican Party in the campaign, is now in line to take over as chairman of Agriculture Committee, a major post for a farm-heavy state like Kansas.
Roberts re-election gave the Republican Party a crucial win in its bid to control Congress.
The Republicans needed to pick up six additional Senate seats and hold on to Roberts’ seat to gain control of the Senate. Republicans picked up seven seats – Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa – by 11 p.m.
Roberts, 78, said that eyes of the nation were on Kansas and the state had delivered the country a Republican Senate, which he said would end gridlock.
“This is not a near-death experience. I always had confidence we would win,” Roberts said after celebrating his victory, which a year ago few thought would have ever been questioned.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who also won re-election, quipped that she looked forward to working with a Republican Senate come January.
After Fox News announced a Roberts victory, loud applause erupted at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka, where Roberts and other Kansas Republicans gathered to await results. An elated Republican crowd chanted, “Let’s go, Pat! Let’s go, Pat!”
“You made a stand,” Roberts told the crowd. “I stood with you. And now it’s time for action. And this Marine is ready to lead that charge.”
Roberts, making frequent references to his military background, promised that keeping the state’s military bases open would be a top priority during his fourth term. He said that he congratulated Orman on running an honorable campaign.
At Orman’s election headquarters at the Overland Park Convention Center, the mood started out upbeat as supporters sipped wine and dined on gourmet hors d’oeuvres. But as western Kansas returns came in, excitement gave way to disappointment.
“It’s probably going to get worse for all our favorite people,” said Cindy Kelly of Wichita, a leader of the group Women for Kansas, which threw its efforts behind the Orman campaign. “I think people just have a hard time voting for not a Republican for Senate.”
At about 10:15 p.m., moments after CNN called the Kansas race for Roberts, Orman conceded, saying he had called the senator and offered his support when Roberts returns to Washington.
He said the call was cordial.
Orman, a 45-year-old millionaire businessman from Olathe, fired up the crowd of his supporters at the Overland Park Convention Center when he said that his close loss would inspire more independent candidates to take a shot at office.
He said the campaign had taken on the entire Washington establishment and “while Sen. Roberts won tonight, we didn’t lose.”
“This has been the greatest thrill of my life,” he said. “This is not the end of anything, this is a beginning.”
Orman left the stage to the song “Won’t Back Down.” He stayed in the hall to chat with his supporters and said that he plans to take his wife on vacation to someplace with a beach.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who became embroiled in controversy surrounding the Senate race both during the primary and general election, said that the high stakes of the race had helped lead to higher-than-expected turnout.
“One thing I think most voters have probably noticed if they’re spending any time in front of their TV in the last couple weeks they’re seeing a lot of national groups coming in very strong for Sen. Roberts because the balance for the U.S. Senate is at stake. … I think the national scope of that race probably worked to his benefit,” Kobach said.
“You have Republicans in Kansas seeing for the first time that the Kansas Senate seat is in flux and the fate of the U.S. Senate could be in the balance,” he said. “Normally when Kansans go to vote for a U.S. Senate race … it’s Republican victory after Republican victory. Now with it in the mix I think a lot of people said, ‘Okay, we better get out and vote.’ And you’re seeing that in our turnout … it looks like turnout is well above our predicted 50 percent.”
It was a high-stakes campaign unlike any that Kansas has seen in recorded memory. Going into Election Day, polls showed a race that was winnable by either candidate.
The national Republican Party poured its money power, consultant power and political star power into the race to try to save Roberts, who was polling substantially behind Orman a couple of months ago.
Being an incumbent, even in a solidly red state like Kansas that has consistently sent Republicans to the Senate since 1932, suddenly became a liability for Roberts.
In the primary, a conservative tea party challenge from Johnson County physician Milton Wolf appeared to be gaining traction with the argument that Roberts had been in Washington too long and didn’t maintain a residence in Kansas.
But Wolf failed in the Republican primary after old Facebook pages surfaced, showing he had posted X-rays and made fun of people who had died violently.
Then, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee, dropped out of the race after a highly publicized legal fight with Kobach, leaving Orman with a clear one-on-one shot at Roberts.
Roberts started catching up after he shook up his team, sidelining his Kansas campaign manager and installing national-level Republican operatives with a reputation for negative campaigning.
For the past couple of months, Roberts and Orman have whacked each other with rhetorical clubs labeled “Harry Reid” and “Washington insider.”
Roberts’ campaign theme evolved into a constant refrain that Orman is a liberal Democrat disguised as an independent and that electing him would help keep Democrats, especially Reid, D-Nevada, in control of the Senate.
That message was reinforced with an almost constant parade of Republican celebrities including Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.
Orman defended his independent status, saying that he would caucus with whichever party wins a majority and that if it were tied, he’d hand the reins to the party showing the most willingness to work on bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.
Meanwhile, Orman pounded at Roberts as the poster child for a do-nothing Congress and longtime veteran of Washington politics who had long since lost touch with the people who sent him there.
The campaign got especially scrappy at the end.
Roberts appeared to have scored a major coup with an ad featuring an endorsement from Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder, one of the most revered figures in Kansas sports.
But then came a blowback when a leaked memo from the president of K-State indicated that Roberts’ campaign had used a video of Snyder without his consent and Snyder asked that the video be taken off the air – which the Roberts campaign didn’t do.
Meanwhile, Roberts’ closing argument seized on a comment by Orman that the numerous celebrity Republican whistle stops for Roberts looked like a “Washington establishment clown car.”
Roberts’ campaign operatives extrapolated from that comment and crafted a robocall accusation that Orman had called Bob Dole a clown. Dole, a former senator and Kansas political legend, had appeared on Roberts’ behalf.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or email@example.com.