Dave Helling: Pat Roberts’ odds to retain Senate seat look good, but he’s not in yet

08/13/2014 3:45 PM

08/13/2014 5:48 PM

Much of our political attention in the coming weeks will be focused on the Kansas governor’s race, but we’ll want to keep our eyes on the state’s Senate race, too.

In most years, that would not be the case — Kansans have sent Republicans to the Senate since the Great Depression. The Kansas campaign trail is strewn with the bleached bones of Democrats who thought they had a chance, only to fall short.

By most measures, GOP incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts enters the fall campaign as the favorite. He’ll have more money, everyone knows him, and he’s a Republican in a Republican state in a Republican year.

Yet there are interesting warning signs. In a Rasmussen poll this week, Roberts led by just 4 percentage points.

Incumbents in both parties are struggling, and voters are in a foul mood. Roberts got less than half his party’s votes on primary day. Had rookie Milton Wolf picked off just 92 Roberts votes in every county, the senior senator would be on his way home, wherever that might be.

Wolf made a serious case against Roberts’ long tenure in Washington. At the same time, Roberts’ unmistakable march to the right may alienate some moderates turning out for the Sam Brownback-versus-Paul Davis race, the other attention-getter on the ballot.

Finally, it isn’t clear what Wolf’s voters will do. It’s highly unlikely they’ll support Democrat Chad Taylor — or independent Greg Orman, who tried to run as a Democrat six years ago. But if the Wolfpack skips the November race, Roberts’ hurdle will get that much higher.

He seems to know this. On primary night, he pleaded for unity in a party that remains at war with itself.

Roberts is far from powerless. If national Republicans sniff an upset, they’ll pour millions into the race. Without Kansas, they know, the GOP has no chance of taking over the Senate.

Roberts remains closely linked with farmers, a dwindling but still important part of the state’s electorate. Myth tells us farmers are anti-Washington. The truth is more complex: Most farmers are savvy businessmen and women who understand their dependence on the government for insurance, loans and other benefits.

Roberts, for all his anti-D.C. rhetoric, understands this too. And he can visit the coffee shop or grain elevator in Wellington or Great Bend and speak a language farmers understand, a challenge Orman and Taylor may struggle to meet.

So give Pat Roberts a solid lead at halftime. The odds are in his favor, but odder things have happened.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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