Republican senator Pat Roberts of Kansas may be in trouble for reelection, if a new poll from Rasmussen Reports is to be believed. The survey of likely voters found just 44 percent said they would support the incumbent Roberts, with 40 percent saying they would support his Democratic opponent, Shawnee County (Topeka) district attorney Chad Taylor. Polling that far below 50 percent is considered dangerous territory for any incumbent, and unsurprisingly, Taylor’s campaign was ecstatic about the poll.
“This election is tightening because the people of Kansas recognize that they finally have a moderate alternative in this race,” says Taylor, as quoted by the Kansas City Star.
Some caveats: There hasn’t been a Democratic senator from Kansas since before World War II, and nationally Democrats are in rough shape ahead of the November election. Furthermore, the relatively unknown Taylor hasn’t had the vetting by the public quite yet, and Roberts supporters point to the Democrat’s record as district attorney. Taylor drew national press attention three years ago, for instance, when he decided to stop prosecuting certain domestic violence cases in Shawnee County, citing budget cuts. As National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring put it in an email, “War on Women much?”
But there are some worrying signs for the GOP. Rasmussen found just 66 percent of Republicans say they support Roberts, a showing the senator’s campaign explains as the result of its close primary, concluded just last week. Roberts’s relatively poor showing is indicative of the fresh wounds from that inter-party battle, but the campaign expects almost all those Republican voters to “come home.”
“The poll was taken way too early,” says Roberts campaign chair Leroy Towns in an interview. “That was an awfully contentious primary.”
It certainly was. Roberts, a three-term senator and eight-term congressman before that, just made it through a GOP primary challenge last week from Milton Wolf, a doctor and conservative activist. A flawed candidate in many respects, Wolf nonetheless held Roberts under 50 percent, with the incumbent senator winning by just 7 percentage points. Contrast that with 2008, when Roberts wasn’t even challenged in the primary and won reelection in the general with 60 percent of the vote in a terrible year for Republicans nationally. What’s changed?
“We think a lot of it is people’s frustrations with Washington,” says Towns, who adds that Roberts never ran against conservatives or the Tea Party in his primary, just against Wolf as a candidate. “It probably has more to do with Kansas’s populist spirit.”
And it’s that spirit that could very well hurt Roberts. Months before the primary, the New York Times reported that Roberts barely lived at the Dodge City address from which he was registered to vote, spending most of his time home in Kansas renting a room at the home of a donor. The story added to the perception that the 33-year veteran of Congress was more in touch with Washington than with Kansas, though it certainly wasn’t enough to topple him in the primary (unlike, say, Dick Lugar).
At the New York TimesNate Cohn notes a second poll that indicates Roberts is in danger and adds that there may be something of a perfect storm brewing in Kansas:
Then there’s the state of the Kansas Republican Party, which is ground zero of the Republican civil war. Sam Brownback, the Republican governor, is facing an open rebellion from moderate Republicans, more than 100 of whom have gone so far as to endorse the Democratic nominee. Mr. Brownback has trailed his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, in a majority of surveys so far this year.
Mr. Roberts is not facing the rebellion besieging Mr. Brownback. But disaffection with Mr. Brownback or Republicans more generally could compound Mr. Roberts’s weakness.
In that same Rasmussen poll, for instance, Brownback is down by 10 points, 41 percent to Davis’s 51 percent.
Leroy Towns, Roberts's campaign manager, doesn’t think there’s much correlation between the two races. While Kansans are reliably Republican at the federal level, they’ve elected plenty of Democratic governors, including Kathleen Sebelius. But Kansas voters are also opposed to much of the larger Democratic project in Washington and oppose Barack Obama’s agenda. Even if Kansas voters are upset with Brownback and go with the Democrat, they’re not necessarily going to transfer that down the rest of the ticket to the Senate race. Besides, the chairman of the NRSC is fellow Kansas senator Jerry Moran. Roberts won’t have any concerns about having enough money if his underfunded Democratic opponent really starts to catch on.
But, as Cohn notes elsewhere in his post, the wild card is an independent bid from a “moderate, wealthy businessman” named Greg Orman. Orman could, in Cohn’s view, attract enough voters disenchanted with the Kansas GOP and give Chad Taylor the opening he needs. Leroy Towns disputes the characterization of Orman as a moderate, however. He says the independent “hasn’t met a Democratic cause he doesn’t support” and calls him a liberal, along with Taylor.