Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, trading places.
Both longtime Kansas Republicans are seeking re-election this year: Roberts to the U.S. Senate, Brownback to the governor’s mansion.
But Roberts — long perceived the more moderate of the two — moved his campaign message sharply right in recent months. That puts him on Brownback’s turf, using language familiar to any tea party conservative.
Brownback, by contrast, faces a well-financed Democrat who leads in at least one early poll. That may mean a tack to the center for the governor, a longtime favorite of the party’s social and fiscal conservatives.
Two veteran Republicans. One bright-red state. Two very different statewide campaigns.
The incumbents remain strong favorites, but neither is a sure thing.
“Both races are more competitive, and thus more interesting, than we would have thought a year ago,” said Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty in an email.
Roberts’ primary opponent is Milton Wolf, a physician, tea party acolyte and political rookie. Brownback’s general election foe is Kansas Rep. Paul Davis, a relative unknown who has nonetheless raised $1 million for the race.
“Davis has put together a strong campaign early on,” Beatty said. “As for Milt Wolf, he already seems to be forcing Roberts to pay attention to him.”
Roberts’ supporters scoff at the possibility that he faces any real pressure.
Yet insurgent tea party candidates have trailed in other states, only to win on primary day by motivating like-minded conservatives to vote — and convincing centrists to stay home.
In March 2012, Richard Mourdock trailed Sen. Richard Lugar by six points in Indiana. Two months later, on primary day, Mourdock beat Lugar by 20 points.
Todd Akin was considered in third place among three Senate candidates, all non-incumbents, in the Missouri GOP primary in 2012. But he won the nomination easily by turning out conservatives in rural southeast Missouri and the St. Louis region.
Both races turned partly on unique circumstances, experts caution. But they also show the possibility of successful insurgent candidacies in the GOP.
There has been no public polling in the Kansas Senate primary race this year. In February 2013, though, before Wolf announced his candidacy, Public Policy Polling surveyed the state’s voters and said Roberts might be vulnerable.
“Just 42 percent of Republicans say they would vote to renominate (Roberts), while 34 percent say they would prefer someone ‘more conservative,’
” it said. “Those are pretty uninspiring numbers if a more fiery candidate wanted to challenge him from the right.”
Wolf, who has picked up some financial support from out-of-state conservative activist groups, would likely fit that category.
“We have very specific reasons why Dr. Wolf is challenging Sen. Roberts,” said Ben Hartman, Wolf’s campaign manager. “(Roberts has) never been held to account. We feel very strongly he should answer for his votes.”
Roberts has responded by seeking the endorsements of well-known conservatives — former House speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, along with the party establishment in Kansas — and by turning up his own tea party talk and casting more conservative votes.
In 2009, Roberts endorsed Kathleen Sebelius’ Cabinet nomination. In 2013, he called on her to quit.
In 2012, he voted against a treaty — endorsed by Bob Dole of Kansas — designed to protect the rights of the disabled.
By contrast, Roberts earned only a 68 rating from the American Conservative Union for votes he cast in 1997, the first year he served in the Senate. Brownback scored a perfect 100 that year.
In 1998, in a speech to Kansas Republicans, Roberts decried “fringe” politicians.
Republicans, he said then, “did not win by limiting our membership and our appeal to a narrow agenda or a special purpose. We won because our solid philosophy and our common-sense agenda appealed to a broad spectrum.”
Despite the apparent shift, Roberts campaign manager Leroy Towns denied any real change in the candidate’s governing approach.
“He is a conservative. He is a strong conservative,” Towns said. “He’ll always run on a message of conservative Republicanism.”
Divisive, ideological primaries have hurt Republicans in some states, forcing them into rhetoric that is tough to shake in a general election. Both Akin and Mourdock lost to strong general election opponents.
Democrats are counting on that trend to continue.
“Tea party contests continue to be a problem for them,” Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told McClatchy Newspapers.
In Kansas, it isn’t clear if any prominent Democrat will even run for the Senate, which Republicans have held for almost a century. That means the winner of the August GOP primary — Roberts or Wolf — will be the overwhelming favorite in November.
That gives both men the opportunity to fashion a solidly conservative message, a license both men have already started to use.
Sam Brownback’s re-election message may be more complex, and quite different.
Opponent Paul Davis, currently a Democratic state representative from Lawrence, said last week he has raised more than $1 million. Beatty called that “very, very impressive” in a relatively cheap media state.
On Friday, Brownback's campaign reported raising $1.6 million in 2013. The figure includes a $500,000 loan on the last day of the year from Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
Davis has also added Jill Docking to the ticket, establishing a connection with a once famous political name. Last week he picked up endorsements from a handful of moderate Kansas Republicans, including former Kansas House speaker Wendell Lady.
A recent Survey USA poll — sharply disputed by Brownback supporters — showed Davis with a slight lead.
“We’re going to be entering this year talking about moderate solutions to Kansas issues,” said Davis campaign manager Adam Harris.
Brownback supporters profess little concern about the challenge, noting his long string of victories at the polls.
“Sam Brownback stands for Kansas solutions, and that’s right where the people of Kansas are,” said campaign adviser David Kensinger in an email.
Some Democrats and independents, though, say Davis’ early strength may force Brownback to campaign on a more centrist message. The governor recently called for state-funded full-day kindergarten in Kansas, despite its additional cost. A spokeswoman said in an email that Brownback “is still considering whether or not to expand Medicaid” despite the strong opposition of most conservatives to the idea.
And some of those conservatives say Brownback risks a low GOP general election turnout if he moves too far to the center, alienating the party’s core voters.
Instead, they expect Brownback to campaign on the 2013 tax cuts that were the centerpiece of his first term. A tax-cut-centered campaign, some say, would put Davis in a tough spot in a taxphobic state like Kansas.
“It’s all about taxes,” said Wichita State University political science professor Kenneth Ciboski. “The Davis-Docking people are going to have to come out and tell us what they’re going to do about revenues. Do they want to restore the cuts that Brownback made?
“History’s on Brownback’s side.”
The two-message outlook in Republican Kansas is unusual, but not unique.
It’s driven, political scientists say, by the increasing prominence of activists and ideological purists in primary elections, where Roberts and Wolf will engage. Primary elections are determined by energy, a focused message and turnout.
General election voters, on the other hand, are more drawn to compromise and consensus in the center. That’s where Brownback and Davis are expected to campaign.
Other states, facing similar divergent choices, have routinely split their verdict. In 2010, Wisconsin voters elected conservative Republican Scott Walker as governor, then picked liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin for the Senate in 2012.
Such a split verdict is possible, experts say, partly because voters judge governors and senators differently. Governors are concerned with schools and roads. Senators are about homeland security and Obamacare.
But it happens in purely federal elections too. Iowans have routinely sent conservative Chuck Grassley and liberal Tom Harkin to the Senate. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, rarely votes with Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.
Bright red Kansas is unaccustomed to a wide range of electoral choices. For decades, the state’s candidates — including Roberts and Brownback, but also Bob Dole, Nancy Kassebaum, Bill Graves and Kathleen Sebelius — have come from different parties but have largely occupied the broad center of the political spectrum.
This year, though, Roberts has already been forced closer to the edge. And Brownback is deciding where he wants to be.
History will also be on the mind of Brownback this year, and Roberts. The two will almost certainly share a spot on the ballot for the last time — Brownback can’t run for governor again, has already been a senator and may not want the job again, and Roberts will be 78 years old this Election Day.
And for all the contrast in their political styles, this year and in previous campaigns, their voting records are actually quite similar.
Voters who know those records, though, are likely to be surprised at how different the two candidates will seem in the coming campaign.
Maybe start this section here: The two Kansas Republicans may offer further proof this year that, if needed, even seemingly mainstream politicians have been forced to pick sides in an ever more polarized government.
It’s up to voters to figure out which view more closely fits their own.
“The only way to measure this,” said Ronnie Metsker, Johnson County GOP chairman, “is to have an election. Then we’ll know.”