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Steve Kraske: Pat Roberts is hurting in Senate race because he’s still a mystery to many

Sen. Pat Roberts’ close battle with independent Greg Orman suggests that the charge that Roberts is really a Virginian masquerading as a Kansan has stuck.
Sen. Pat Roberts’ close battle with independent Greg Orman suggests that the charge that Roberts is really a Virginian masquerading as a Kansan has stuck. The Associated Press

If you’re wondering why a three-term U.S. senator from Kansas continues to struggle against a largely unknown independent, here’s one explanation:

Pat Roberts — and the work he’s done in Washington — has left absolutely no impression on a whole lot of Kansans.

That’s simply astonishing, given that the Republican was first elected to Congress in 1980.

In fact, more people draw a blank on Roberts than on any senator across the country seeking re-election since 2010, says Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist who has spent a lot of time crunching numbers.

That lack of familiarity carries deep consequences. Roberts’ opponent in the August primary, fellow Republican Milton Wolf, pounded Roberts relentlessly for not living in Kansas. Roberts, Wolf insisted, is really a Virginian masquerading as a Kansan.

Roberts fought back hard against that allegation. But his closer-than-expected primary battle with Wolf and Roberts’ neck-and-neck scrum with independent Greg Orman suggest that the charge stuck.

And it stuck because many Kansans largely regarded him as a blank slate. They didn’t have any other information about Roberts, so the consistent message from Wolf had staying power.

In February, when Public Policy Polling released a survey on Roberts, almost one-third of Kansans — 32 percent — said they were “unsure” about his work in D.C. No other veteran senator left his constituents so mystified.

“Roberts was the outlier,” Miller said.

In fact, PPP concluded in 2013 that Roberts was “one of the most anonymous senators in the country.”

Now, some first-term senators don’t make much of an impression either. Roberts’ Senate colleague from Kansas, Jerry Moran, checked in at 34 percent of Kansans having no opinion of him. But he’s a freshman, not a veteran.

On job approval, Roberts stands at minus 17, based on this week’s PPP survey. That means his disapproval score tops his approval total by 17 points. That’s a bad place for a politician to live.

Miller found that going back to 2010, the average winning incumbent was at a plus 4.

Missouri’s Claire McCaskill proved you can win with a negative score. When she defeated Republican Todd Akin two years ago, the Democrat stood at a minus 8.

If Roberts should pull off a win in November, he would be the least popular senator to claim victory in a competitive race since 2010, Miller found.

Roberts remains a mystery man to too many.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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