He’s not up for re-election, but U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran has much riding on the Senate race raging in Kansas.
Moran’s fellow Republican senator from the state, Pat Roberts, is locked in a pitched battle for his political life. Most polls show incumbent Roberts trailing independent challenger Greg Orman.
Moran doesn’t face voters again until 2016, but as the party leader in charge of the GOP’s national effort to win control of the U.S. Senate, he badly needs a Roberts victory.
Republicans must pick up six seats in November to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats. Analysts say a loss by Roberts in Kansas would sting far worse for Moran than Republican defeats in other hotly contested races, such as in Alaska or Louisiana.
“It’s like losing a game on your home field,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, which provides nonpartisan analysis of U.S. elections.
Moran, 60, serves as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm tasked with electing Republicans to the Senate. In an interview Thursday, Moran said even though he has a personal interest in Roberts’ fate, the Kansas contest is just one of many that count.
“He’s my friend,” Moran said of Roberts. “We’ve been together in Congress and we’ve worked side by side, so I personally care a lot about him. With my (party leadership) hat, I’m interested in lots of candidates in races across the country. … That’s true of Sen. Roberts, but that’s also true of 13, 14 other candidates.”
Known as a risk-averse politician, Moran’s ascension to the high-profile campaign committee chairmanship in 2012 surprised many.
But his gamble was reasonable: Republicans’ chances of flipping the Senate looked good because Democrats had more seats to defend. The odds have gotten even better since, with five more Democratic senators announcing their retirements and President Barack Obama’s approval ratings at record lows.
“There’s the expectation that the Republicans are in a good position to take the majority,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “If they fall short, there are going to be a lot of people on his side of the aisle who are going to be disappointed with him. That comes with the territory.”
No Senate campaign committee chairman has overseen the loss of a home-state colleague since 1972, more than 40 years ago.
Moran risks being tagged as a Washington insider as he tries to balance his dual roles of Kansas lawmaker and national party leader, said Ken Ciboski, a political science professor at Wichita State University.
“When you’re in a leadership position, you carry the water for the party,” Ciboski said. “These days, there’s a very strong anti-incumbency feeling on a lot of these races, and Sen. Moran is putting his career on the line.”
Far-right activists in Kansas already are grumbling about what they see as Moran’s role in helping incumbent Republican senators defeat tea party candidates in primaries in Kansas, Georgia and Mississippi.
Some are calling for a primary challenge against Moran in 2016.
“Maybe Milton Wolf” — a tea party favorite who gave Roberts a scare in the August primary — “would throw his hat in again,” said Craig Gabel, president of Kansans for Liberty, a Kansas coalition of tea party and ultraconservative groups.
Moran says he’s concerned about a more functional Senate, not his own political career.
“Regardless of your position — Republican or Democrat — this Senate is dysfunctional the way it’s led today, and it’s important that the change of leadership occur,” Moran said. “That can only happen if the Republicans are in the majority.”
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