In December 1930, in the depths of the Great Depression, Kansas voters chose Democrat George McGill to complete the unexpired Senate term of Charles Curtis, who’d been elected as Herbert Hoover’s vice president. Two years later, Kansas helped oust Curtis—and Hoover—by voting for Franklin Roosevelt and re-electing McGill. Six years later, after one more dance with FDR, Kansans returned to their normal political axis. They threw out McGill—and haven’t looked back since. No state—not Utah, not Wyoming, not Idaho—has gone nearly that long sending only Republicans to the Senate. (In presidential elections since ’36, the state has gone Democratic exactly once—LBJ in his 1964 landslide.)
That’s why the national press has been flocking to the Sunflower State in numbers suggesting the appearance of an alien spacecraft. The state that has gone more than three-quarters of a century without ever defeating an elected GOP senator is seriously threatening the tenure of three-term Senator Pat Roberts. In the just-released USA Today/Suffolk poll, Roberts trails his opponent by five points. (By contrast, Roberts won re-election in 2008 by 24 points). To add to the “Holy Smokes!” quality of this election year, Republican Governor Sam Brownback, who won office four years ago by 31 points, trails his opponent by four points.
When I asked longtime Kansas City Star reporter David Helling what he would have told someone who’d predicted this development eight months ago, he said simply: “that they’re smoking something that’s legal in Colorado, but not in Kansas....All the statewide offices are Republicans. All four congressmen are Republicans. The party has had by and large hegemony in Kansas for decades.” Outsiders—myself included—have taken to grasping for the set of familiar Kansas references to paint a picture of what’s happening.
It’s another “bleeding Kansas,” reaching back to the murderous battles in the years before the Civil War between those who wanted Kansas as a free state and those who wanted a slave state. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” we ask, harkening back to a famous editorial by Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White, or the more recent bestseller by Tom Frank. Or maybe we just exclaim in wonder: “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
So permit a bit of perspective: What’s happening here is not all that bizarre. Pat Roberts is in trouble for the same reasons that have afflicted many other senators. At 78, Roberts has been a part of Washington for more than half his life—he began as a staff aide in 1967, and won a House seat in 1980. He long held the title of the funniest man in the Senate—Al Franken may have taken that away—but he still does a more than passable Jack Benny imitation, and is startlingly familiar with the work of legendary radio comedians Bob and Ray.
You get a sense of how far back he goes when you ask him to describe himself. “I would say probably an Eisenhower Republican,” he told me, using a label that has likely not been heard for several decades. “I know Bob Dole—a dear friend—so I’m a Bob Dole Republican. But,” he hastens to add, “I’m also the fourth-most conservative senator in the State. “
That voting record is key: In a state that is often described as having both a “moderate” and a “conservative” Republican Party, Roberts was target by the same Tea Party movement that took down Senate Republicans like Richard Lugar and Robert Bennett. While he narrowly survived a primary against a Tea Party foe, his rightward move alienated moderates like former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum—who refused to cut an ad for him.
Perhaps more harmful was the charge that Roberts had “gone Washington”—that he was too much a part of “the system,” too far from his roots. It was an idea buttressed by a devastating New York Times piece last February revealing that Roberts had no home in Kansas—that he rented a room in a condo on a golf course from supporters. He did not help his cause when he said on a radio show, “Every time I get an opponent—I mean, a chance—I come home to Kansas.”
A month or so ago it appeared that Roberts’ best asset was the divided nature of his opposition; he faced both a Democrat and an independent, 45-year-old businessman and investor Greg Orman, with the wealth to fund his own campaign. Then Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out; and Orman took the chance to carefully separate himself from both major parties, whose approval ratings mirror that of Roger Goodell.
“I think both parties are really to blame for what’s going on in Washington,” Orman told me as he worked the Kansas State football crowd. “Both parties take extreme positions the way Harry Reid is running the Senate. He’s running the Senate like a dictatorship. He’s not allowing compromise, he’s not allowing debate. We got the same problem in the House with the Republicans, so I think both parties are really to blame for the dysfunction that we have in Washington today. And if we don’t do something different, if we don’t fundamentally change Washington, we’re not going to be able to solve problems, and that’s going to be a real issue for the American people.”
What that “something different” might be is not exactly clear. He is vague on what to do about the Keystone pipeline, what to do about Obamacare—even what party he’ll caucus with should he be the deciding vote on who controls the Senate. He treats it as a golden opportunity to flex Kansas’ muscle.
“Well,” he told me as I nabbed a couple minutes with him after a speech at a VFW, “I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the voters of Kansas and what I've talked about is we will caucus with whichever party0will be willing to promote a pro-problem-solving, nonpartisan agenda.”
Roberts has staked his survival on branding Orman with the label most likely to unsettle undecided Kansans.
“He is a liberal Democrat, and that's why you have Jeb Bush, John McCain, you have Rand Paul...I think about everybody in the party is coming—conservative, I don’t say moderate—regular Republicans knowing how important this race is because they know Greg is a liberal Democrat. And we don’t need any more of those.”
It is compulsory to note in every Kansas story that “the race may decide who controls the Senate.” This may turn out to be wrong; Republican victories in Iowa and/or Colorado could compensate for a loss here. Meanwhile, if nothing else, the unsettled politics of this usually most predictable state have been a small Godsend to the hotels, restaurants, and car-rental companies here, who are more than happy to accommodate the journalistic visitors who are asking: “What’s the matter with”...Enough, already.