Control of the Senate

As Roberts and Orman Double Down, It’s War in Kansas

Pat Roberts and Greg Orman bring in the heavy artillery in what has suddenly become America’s hottest—and most heated—Senate race.

10.01.14 9:45 AM ET

To the extent politicians are defined by those they entrust with running their campaigns, creating their TV ads, and speaking for them, we suddenly know a lot more about the two candidates for the U.S. Senate in Kansas. Incumbent Senator Pat Roberts, who’s been in Washington for more than 20 years, has to convince voters he’s not out of touch, that he’s still a real Kansan, while Greg Orman, a newcomer running as an Independent, has to convince voters he’s not a closet Democrat but a real middle-of-the-roader.

Each man’s strategy for victory is evident in the new campaign staffs hastily assembled after Democrat Chad Taylor withdrew from the race and polls showed Roberts trailing Orman in a one-on-one matchup. With majority control of the Senate at stake, the GOP dispatched a team out of Washington to rescue Roberts while Orman went on a hiring spree. He brought in three Democrats (pollster David Beattie, adman Eric Adelstein, and spokesman Mike Phillips), but he also hired two Republicans, campaign manager Jim Jonas, whose GOP roots stretch back to the legendary Roger Ailes and the Bush-Quayle campaign of 1992, and spokesman Sam Edelen, who has worked for Republican mayoral and gubernatorial candidates.

“Smart,” says Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett, “because he’s running as a real Independent, and he’s made it clear he isn’t going to identify with one party or the other until after the election.” Bennett, a moderate Democrat, would like to see Orman caucus with the Democrats should he win, but if the GOP gains control of the Senate, which seems more likely than not, Orman might well decide to align with the majority party to have more impact. “It wouldn’t be terrible to have a moderate voice inside the Republican caucus,” says Bennett. “Either way, it’s good for Kansans and for the country.”

The two Republicans helping Orman do so at considerable risk to themselves. “If you’re taking on a sitting Republican senator who has everyone from Bob Dole to Sarah Palin coming in to campaign for him, you’re going to cross a Rubicon, and that takes some guts for a Republican,” says Bennett. Jonas, who is based in Denver, has dabbled in third-party politics before as a co-founder of Unity ’08, which never got off the ground in 2008, and Americans Elect, which fell short in its attempt to nominate a centrist ticket in 2012.

Those efforts were such long shots they didn’t invite the kind of vitriol that is likely to come Jonas’ way if he is seen as hurting GOP chances to take the Senate. “Mitch McConnell keeps score, especially after the majority is on the line or could be,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “If the Republicans end up with exactly 50 seats (picking up five instead of the six they need for control), does he caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans? That gives him very plausible leverage.”

The newly installed campaign team charged with revving up Roberts’ response to this unexpectedly strong challenge is led by Chris LaCivita, a longtime top operative for Republicans who is best known for advising the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. A practitioner of scorched-earth politics, he is presumed responsible for turning the normally mild-mannered Roberts into an attack dog of the first order. Roberts has gone from waging a rather sleepy campaign to running around the state calling President Obama a “national socialist,” a derogatory phrase that Roberts apparently didn’t realize is derived from Nazi, or National Socialist Democratic Workers Party. The goal is to nationalize the race around Obama, whose approval rating in Kansas is just 33 percent.

Complicating matters for Roberts, he has the misfortune of running on the same ballot as Governor Sam Brownback, who’s behind his Democratic challenger in his bid for reelection. Brownback enacted radical tax cuts and spending cuts, which his critics charge sent the state into a slump and left public schools without resources. “Talking about national socialism and bringing in Sarah Palin might not be the best move for a Republican in a state that’s decided their governor has gone too far,” says Bennett.

Proving his far-right bona fides is just one aspect of the newly energized Roberts campaign. The other aspect, which is where LaCivita excels, is the negative attack launched against Orman for his friendship with Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs board member who is serving time for insider trading. Orman was on the witness list for the defense in the 2012 trial, but was never called. “Where there’s any smoke you can claim fire,” says Sam Popkin, a political scientist who teaches at the University of California San Diego and whose most recent book is The Candidate.

Whether the charge will work to sufficiently taint Orman is another issue, says Popkin. Orman should be able to deflect the attack, using Gupta’s imprisonment to show that Wall Street gets punished. There’s no suggestion Orman is guilty of anything except refusing to throw Gupta under the bus. If the worst they can say is this is a guy who doesn’t abandon friends when they go to jail, that’s survivable, says Popkin, who notes: “Serving on boards and knowing an insider trader makes you almost like a Republican.”

Roberts’ campaign promises more attacks from its opposition research, which will test Orman and his team. That’s to be expected given the national importance of this race, and what it might portend about the future of politics if a well-regarded incumbent is tossed out for a man without a party. “If he ever stole anybody’s lunch money in kindergarten, that’s going to come out,” says Claremont McKenna’s Pitney. One side is playing conventional hardball, the other is looking for the promised land, and with four weeks to go, who these consultants are and the path they prescribe will define this race as much as the candidates.