Pat Roberts Has a Problem

Allysia Finley
The Wall Street Journal

Until recently, the only Senate pick-up opportunities for Democrats in November appeared to be in Georgia and Kentucky. But a Republican crack-up may put Kansas in play as well.

Surveys in the past two weeks by Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling have shown Republican Sen. Pat Roberts up by just four points. PPP notes that the incumbent "emerged from the primary with only a 27% approval rating to 44% of voters who disapprove of him." Tea-party groups, which backed radiologist Milton Wolf, lashed the incumbent for being out of touch. In February it was reported that Mr. Roberts, who's been in Congress for four decades, rents out his Kansas house and stays with donors when visiting the state.

Had tea-party groups done a better job vetting their candidate—Mr. Wolf had posted X-rays of his patient's gunshot wounds on Facebook —they may have succeeded in toppling Mr. Roberts, who won by seven points in this month's GOP primary. The trouble for the weakened senator is that his challengers in the general election are unlikely to be as flawed.

The GOP's saving grace is that the senator's opponents—businessman Greg Orman, an independent, and Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, a Democrat—are "pretty much splitting the anti-Roberts vote evenly," according to PPP. But if one of them were to drop out, "Roberts would really be in trouble." In head-to-head match ups, the Republican leads Mr. Taylor by four points and trails Mr. Orman by 10. The independent would "take 30% of the Republican vote while losing only 11% of Democrats to Roberts." Of course, the senator's numbers may improve once he steps up his campaign attacks. As it stands, 64% of likely voters don't have an opinion of Mr. Orman, while Mr. Taylor boasts a 29% name recognition.

Yet using the boilerplate Republican strategy of linking the Democratic candidate with President Obama may not work in Kansas. Mr. Roberts's 27% approval rating in the state is even worse than the president's 33% support. And the senator's more formidable opponent appears to be the young and charismatic Mr. Orman, who manages a private-equity firm and will have a major financial edge over Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Orman is also running on a populist platform that includes term limits for lawmakers, ending Congressional pensions and banning lobbying by former congressmen. Although he briefly campaigned for Senate in 2008 as a Democrat, he's running as an independent this year because "I didn't feel like either party fit me well as someone who is fiscally responsible and socially tolerant." Which is true of many of the state's independents and young Republicans.

If Mr. Orman continues to gain momentum, national Democratic leaders may pressure Mr. Taylor to pull out and back the independent. In turn, Mr. Orman may be persuaded to caucus with the Democrats like independent Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.

In order to hold the seat, Republicans will need to unite around Mr. Roberts. It's a troubling sign for the senator that they didn't do that after this month's primary.


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