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Bill Roy will be remembered for almost defeating Bob Dole in 1974

In 1974, Bill Roy faced off with Dole in the general election.
In 1974, Bill Roy faced off with Dole in the general election.

Bob Dole, who at 90 is in the midst of a thank you tour around Kansas, almost surely wouldn’t be making that swing if 1974 had turned out differently.

That was the year Dole’s political life passed before his eyes. He came within a whisker of losing a Senate re-election race to a Democrat named Bill Roy of Topeka.

Roy, who died Monday at age 88, did a lot of things in his long life. He served two terms as a congressman, worked as a doctor and wrote a newspaper column. During his time in the U.S. House, he was the only member to have both law and medical degrees.

Roy beat an incumbent to win his seat, then breezed to a re-election win in 1972 with 63 percent support.

Entering public life in his mid-40s, Roy was seen as above politics. With Republicans struggling to overcome Watergate in 1974, Roy was formidable.

In fact, a Labor Day poll that year showed him leading Dole 49 to 43 percent.

The race was on, and Dole grew desperate.

At a state fair debate that was supposed to focus on farm issues, and that some thought Dole was losing, the senator threw a Hail Mary in the final minutes. The moment ranks as one of the most pivotal in state political history.

“You heard him stand here today and say he’s for abortion on demand,” Dole thundered.

He then challenged Roy to reveal how many abortions he had performed.

The race was thought to be close on the final weekend when Right to Life members placed 50,000 fliers on car windshields. Those fliers contained graphic pictures of dead fetuses, along with denunciations of Roy, who thought the procedure was warranted in some circumstances.

The fliers also urged voters to back Dole, who insisted he had nothing to do with the lit drop.

Dole won by a scant 13,532 votes out of 794,434 cast. A loss would have meant no vice presidential bid two years later at the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City.

A loss very well might have meant no White House run in 1980 — and maybe in 1988 and 1996. It could have ended one of the most storied political careers in Kansas before it really took off.

The race spoke volumes about Dole’s endless ambition. And it also said something about Roy, who struggled to be aggressive in that ’74 race.

“Bob Dole wanted it more than I did,” he once said.

Said Dole: “I’ve told Bill Roy to his face that he made me a better senator.”

When insiders mention Roy, the talk almost always turns to the race that would have changed Kansas — and the country too.

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

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