Americans usually celebrate brilliant political careers. Long-tenured Representatives and Senators get buildings named after them at universities, hospitals or Washington. Storied legislators take victory laps during their final campaigns, unless they happen to be running for their political lives. One particular candidate in Kansas seems to be running for his life while treating it like a victory lap.
At that unfortunate crossroads, we find Senator Pat Roberts.
You could forgive the Senator if he followed Chad Taylor’s lead, asking to withdraw from the race. Pat Roberts has been a juggernaut in Kansas politics since he first ran for Congress in 1980 and cruised to re-election for seven more terms. Roberts’ victory margins never dipped below 60 percent. In 1996, Roberts sought the Senate seat vacated by Nancy Kassebaum, winning again. Roberts won as the sole Senate candidate who did not sign Americans for Limited Terms’ pledge to serve only two terms, saying he planned to serve no more than two anyway.
After that second term, Roberts ran again in 2008, again earning 60 percent of the vote, and looked to be unbeatable. But after three terms, at age 78, one had to wonder if Roberts’ heart was in another long campaign and time to take a victory lap was near. Enter Dr. Milton Wolf.
Wolf should have been the latest of a series of easily-defeated pretenders to the throne. Wolf had never before run for elective office, his claim to fame being distantly related to President Obama. Wolf looked like another Tea Party hopeful ginned up by ambitious consultants and overoptimistic pollsters. But that primary would change everything: voters expressed frustration with incumbents at the polls. Roberts won by his smallest margin ever: seven points. After a career of charging to 60 percent wins, Roberts failed to earn a majority.
A pillar of electoral strength was suddenly imperiled, and a career that would be honored may end ignominiously. Greg Orman has conducted the kind of campaign we expect from Pat Roberts: aggressive, measured, and on-message. Orman appeals to Democrats who helped him discourage Taylor as well as moderate and unaffiliated voters who were frustrated with Roberts. While he has fed Roberts’ message as a Democrat in disguise lately, Orman maintains a lead and likely wins.
As Roberts considered running again, a ‘mailed-in’ campaign strategy would have made sense. Chad Taylor was no intimidating presence. Independents like Orman rarely compete, let alone win. Roberts may have thought he had an easy road to a fourth term. Putting an old friend in to manage the campaign — rather than a bare-knuckle DC professional of the kind sent in recently to rescue Roberts – was a sign Roberts was not bracing for a fight. Roberts’ disinterest in a recent debate and an inability to say anything nice about Orman when prompted seconded that view. Roberts’ lack of fire in the job itself, exemplified by the news of chronic meeting absences, suggest that the Senator is not invested in fighting for his seat, even as he inches ever closer to defeat.
Ironically, one of Roberts’ great strengths throughout his career has now hurt him. Roberts did his best to stay above internal state GOP fights. By remaining above the fray Roberts kept both wings of the party from turning on him — for a while. Having never chosen a side he now finds himself without allies, at arms length with both wings of his party. Roberts has had to call in favors from the national GOP and DC-based allies, but every one of those favors is a reminder of Roberts’s Beltway connections and long tenure in the Senate: reminders of Orman’s message.
Having to tussle with Wolf and Orman has transformed the race from Roberts’ victory lap into a mad scramble that may cost him the opportunity for that lap at the end of this term, if not the seat itself. Sometimes, the trick is knowing when you’ve stayed at a party too long.
Chapman Rackaway is a Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University.