Neither side has this one figured out.
More than $27 million had been spent on the U.S. Senate race in Kansas as of Friday, the most for any political contest in the state’s history.
And yet the polls say Pat Roberts and Greg Orman are still running neck and neck with only two days to go.
Negative ads, round-the-clock tweeting, robocalls, mailboxes stuffed with slick campaign fliers.
There’s no escaping the frenzy this campaign season as both sides strain to find an edge.
Just what is Roberts’ path to victory? He can’t fall back on rote moves from the Republican playbook. Not when he’s challenged by somebody who rejects the old party labels.
And how does an independent like Orman win? He faces an incumbent with an established party organization. Whatever network of volunteers Orman’s team has pieced together, it had to make from scratch.
Here, then, is a look at the many ways they’re scrapping for enough votes to win — and possibly turn the balance of the U.S. Senate.
It’s a snapshot of just one day — the Tuesday before the election — and how they worked Johnson County, where nearly one-fourth of Kansas voters live.
It’s 6:59 a.m., still dark on a crisp day that will end with the Kansas City Royals taking game six of the World Series.
Channel 41 has just signed off on its morning news show when on comes one of the countless anti-Orman commercials flooding Kansas TV and cable channels all month.
“We know about Greg Orman’s ties to Washington Democrats, but we didn’t know about his ties to Rajat Gupta,” a faceless announcer says as the usual ominous music plays and grainy photos appear of Orman and Gupta, a former business associate who, the narrator explains, is in federal prison.
It’s a guilt-by-association ad paid for not by the Roberts campaign, but by an outside group known as the Ending Spending Action Fund.
As of that morning, Ending Spending had spent $1.3 million on ads such as “Clink” to influence the outcome of the Senate race.
That’s big money considering that outside groups spent $350,000 in support or opposition of all candidates when Roberts last ran, in 2008.
One week before the election, federal campaign finance reports showed that outside groups had spent $13 million on the 2014 Senate race, and by Friday an additional $4 million will have been pumped in.
Most of it for ads aimed at Orman.
Orman volunteer Mike Harrison begins another morning monitoring the campaign’s Facebook page.
The candidate’s picture appears next to Harrison’s postings. But the 66-year-old Olathe man writes in the third person, not pretending to be the candidate.
He answers questions about Orman’s stances by linking users to the campaign website. He deletes vulgar posts served up by what he calls “Roberts trolls.” But he lets stand many opposing views.
Harrison tries to respond promptly when someone directs a question to the campaign. But on this day he misses one query. The woman who posed the question later posts her disappointment and hints that Orman may lose her vote.
“Sorry to hear that,” Harrison writes back. “Any chance you can ask again?”
The woman replies: “I would like to know your positions on the so-called War on Drugs, the reform of cannabis laws … medical cannabis and, most importantly, hemp in agriculture.”
A Roberts troll jumps in, saying her comment exposes the liberal bent of Orman’s supporters.
At 7:40 a.m., the Roberts campaign sends out its first tweet of the day: The senator will be on that morning’s “Fox & Friends” show.
Host Steve Doocy, who grew up in Abilene, Kan., tells his national audience that Roberts “is in the fight of his political life.” And for the next five and a half minutes, Roberts sums up the election as being about the future of the country.
“The race is pretty simple,” says Roberts, who, like his mentor, former senator Bob Dole, often refers to himself in the third person. “If you vote for Pat Roberts, you’re voting for a change in the Senate to get our country back, and if you vote for my opponent.” But then he never completes the thought except to say that “he’s not an independent — he is a liberal Democrat.”
Whether Orman is or not, defining him as one is key to the Roberts campaign.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the Roberts team tweets out news that it has uploaded a new ad on YouTube that takes stabs at Orman.
From the start of the general election season, Roberts has focused more on raising doubts about Orman than calling attention to his own accomplishments during his more than 30 years in Congress.
Calling the plays is Chris LaCivita, a consultant best known for launching the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that helped sink John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.
At his side is campaign manager Corry Bliss. He, like LaCivita, was recruited after Roberts survived a too-close battle in the primary.
“You have to go out and make sure people realize how important (the race) is,” says Ed Martin, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “One thing that I think LaCivita and Corry bring, and maybe the situation brings, is you just see a lot more energy out of the Roberts campaign and out of himself.”
At Orman headquarters
At a strip mall in Shawnee, Orman’s wife, Sybil, emails volunteers from her laptop. She is dressed in a T-shirt, gym shorts and flip-flops.
“I hang out here,” she says, “because it’s a positive place” and out of reach from the tide of Roberts’ ads.
Her husband showed up the day before to thank a dozen volunteers who gave up their Monday night to make phone calls. It was the one evening when it was safe to pester people at home when they wouldn’t be glued to the World Series.
The candidate tells the story of how he phoned his thanks to a couple who had hosted a campaign fundraiser, but the woman hung up on him.
“We’d gotten so many robocalls,” she would apologize later, “we thought you were a robocaller.”
When Kansans open their mailboxes, many find them stuffed with campaign literature. In the stack is a mailer from the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life that endorses Roberts and a host of other Republicans.
The group sends out similar pieces every election. But because the races are so close this year, says political director Mary Kay Culp, it’s sending out twice as many as usual.
“Take a photo of this endorsement postcard,” the latest Kansans for Life mailer says. “Text it to pro-life family and friends!”
Christian radio broadcaster Dick Bott also has been imploring listeners to support the candidate through his Overland Park-based national radio network.
“If you care about life, you have no other choice but Pat Roberts,” declares the ad that runs at the top of the hour.
Door to door
Clipboard in hand, Orman volunteer Chuck Stinson canvasses a neighborhood near Shawnee Mission Parkway and Pflumm Road.
More than 60 percent of that precinct’s voters backed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. Stinson’s voter list includes names, addresses, phone numbers, ages and genders.
No one answers the door at the first dozen houses Stinson visits. He leaves door-hanger ads with a positive message about Orman on one side and a Roberts attack on the other.
“It’s good exercise,” the 71-year-old says.
Around the next corner, he finally hits pay dirt. Sandy McNally says she’d like a yard sign.
“A huge one.”
Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is campaigning for Republicans in 30 states.
On this day, he’s traveling with Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback — another Republican incumbent in a surprisingly tough race — starting with a noon appearance in Wichita, with later stops in Pittsburg and Overland Park. Coinciding with the trip is the announcement that Paul’s political action committee chipped in a six-figure cable TV ad buy in support of Roberts.
Endorsements from household-name Republicans have been central to the Roberts campaign. Among the visitors to Kansas: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Also the 91-year-old Dole, who ran for president in 1996 and represented Kansas in the House and Senate for 35 years.
Hard telling how much endorsements matter to voters, but they seem to energize the party base, says Kansas Speaker of the House Ray Merrick.
“They validate one’s preferences,” adds University of Missouri-Kansas City political science professor Beth Miller Vonnahme.
Talking to voters
Orman spends his lunch hour at the Leawood headquarters of AMC Theatres, where three dozen employees gather for the company’s occasional “Lunch and Learn” sessions.
The candidate spends eight minutes retelling his business background and the next five repeating his theme that Washington is broken, run by “the worst of both parties” with “childish lines in the sand.”
Questions? Lots. Someone asks how a senator lacking major-party affiliation intends to caucus in a chamber of partisan loyalists.
Orman proposes building “a problem-solving caucus in the center.”
It may take 10 years, says Orman, who has vowed to serve no more than two six-year terms.
Campaign central for Roberts is the storefront headquarters of the Johnson County Republican Party, with a placard in the window that says “Caution: Volunteers Working.”
An older man lugs several dozen yard signs for Roberts, Brownback and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder and loads them in his truck.
Meanwhile inside, siblings Kathy and James Pendergast make call after call.
“Can we count on your vote for Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts?” Kathy asks, then follows up with information about advance voting.
On one night alone, volunteers called 5,000 households in Johnson County and beyond, county party chairman Ronnie Metsker says.
“We have a hard-core list of volunteers scheduled around the clock,” he says, “and they just go, go, go.”
The architect of Orman’s digital campaign is Veracity Media. It also built the website for the Centrist Project, an advocacy group that preaches the “fiscal responsibility” and “social tolerance” that Orman voices on the stump.
While he lacks the voter data and troops a political party provides, Orman just might win this thing online with data it has gathered, says Chad Peace of the California-based Independent Voter Network.
“Online,” Peace says, “you can target.”
Campaigns can figure out who might help them, financially or at the polls, based on the sites that Internet users choose to explore.
And the Orman for Senate Facebook page has more than 20,000 likes. That’s 20,000 people whom the campaign knows how to contact online. From there, Peace said, Orman can spider-web ads out to the Facebook friends of each.
But how many are Kansas voters? Anyone’s guess.
The Duggar family from the reality TV show “19 Kids and Counting” has been out on the campaign trail for Roberts. Later in the week, Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder will give his thumbs up.
But this afternoon, 1950s crooner Pat Boone is on the phone with a recorded message.
“Hello, my friend, it’s Pat Boone, yup, the ‘Love Letters in the Sand’ guy. I’m still singing in concerts, but today I’m calling … to sing the praises of Senator Pat Roberts.”
The recording says Roberts is “the only Senate candidate who understands that Obamacare cuts Medicare and hurts seniors.”
Keeping a distance?
Somewhere in Kansas, members of organized labor are also making phone calls this afternoon. They’re asking fellow unionists to support Democrat Paul Davis for governor. They don’t mention Orman, whose business success makes some in the rank and file wary, according to the Kansas AFL-CIO.
The candidate has given $2 million, some of it in loans, to his campaign.
“We’re not doing anything actively for Orman,” says Kansas AFL-CIO spokesman Bruce Tunnell. “And they (Orman’s campaign) haven’t asked for anything.”
Yet the national AFL-CIO endorsed Orman and sent anti-Roberts mailers to 94,000 union members in Kansas.
Likewise, Democratic leaders in Johnson County insist they’re not helping Orman directly.
They don’t have to, says former state senator Dick Bond of Overland Park, among some moderate Republicans vigorously backing Davis.
“If Democrats can get a strong turnout for Paul Davis,” Bond says, “you know those voters aren’t going to vote for Roberts.”
Orman’s critics note that his campaign has tapped Washington, D.C.-based Hamilton Campaigns for consulting work. The company’s website touts itself as “a partisan consulting firm with four decades of experience in providing cutting-edge decision-making services to Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations.”
Attacks on Roberts
Roberts isn’t the only one getting help from outside super PACs.
The night’s local news programs start with World Series coverage, then break for political ads.
An anti-Roberts commercial featuring Rochelle Chronister, past chair of the Kansas GOP, ridicules the senator for missing committee hearings.
That she can’t support a fellow Republican in this election, she says, “breaks my heart.”
The ad is part of a $3.4 million media buy paid for by the Committee to Elect an Independent Senate.
By the start of game six of the World Series, both candidates are ready to call it a day.
Roberts catches some rest in preparation for a bus tour that begins the next morning.
Orman throws a watch party for several dozen volunteers rather than have them upset voters with phone calls during the game.
The Royals go on to win, and there’s still hope that the next day will bring them the trophy.
Sort of like now, two days before the election. Both sides are planning victory parties.