Washington gridlock took the spotlight at Wednesday’s Kansas Senate debate, with challenger Greg Orman calling Sen. Pat Roberts part of the problem and Roberts saying that Orman would preserve an unproductive status quo by keeping Democrats in control of the Senate.
The candidates met in a high-stakes debate on statewide television in what will likely be their largest audience of the campaign.
They agreed Washington is a mess, but neither was shy about saying where he felt the other fell or would fall short in fixing it.
Roberts blamed Washington’s problems on President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“There’s only one way we’re going to stop the Obama-Reid agenda,” Roberts said, and that is by re-electing him.
Orman is running as a moderate independent and has not said which party he would caucus with if elected to the Senate. In the debate, Roberts repeatedly called him a “liberal Democrat.”
Roberts highlighted his endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“They know that I will vote for a Republican majority and end the gridlock by Harry Reid,” he said.
Orman, a Johnson County businessman, replied that he was “the only person on the stage to create a private-sector job,” a dig on Roberts’ long career in Washington as a congressional aide, congressman and senator. He called Roberts “part of that broken system for 47 years” and one of Washington’s “bitter partisans who care more about pleasing the extremists and special interests in their own party than they do about solving problems.”
As for Roberts’ contention that Obama and Reid are to blame for the capital’s ongoing inability to pass meaningful legislation, Orman said, “You know, he’s half right. The other half of the mess is (Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell and Pat Roberts.”
Possibly the most striking contrast between the two candidates was on the issue of abortion.
Asked if he was pro-life or pro-choice, Orman said, “I’m pro-choice.”
“As a man, I’m not ever going to have to face the hard decisions that women have to face,” he said. “I trust that the women of Kansas are smart and they can make decisions on their own about their own reproductive health.”
He said abortion was a matter of “settled law” and that the country needs to move on.
“We spend a whole lot of time in this country talking about this issue,” he said. “I think it prevents us from talking about other important issues.”
Roberts called Orman’s position “unconscionable” and seemed surprised that he directly stated a pro-choice view on the issue that has pulled Kansas politicians in a conservative direction for decades.
“I think he said we have to get past this issue,” Roberts said. “Get past the rights of the unborn?”
He said he thinks the issue is far from settled law, citing the Hobby Lobby case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the arts and crafts company doesn’t have to fund some forms of birth control as part of its employees’ health insurance program.
“Hobby Lobby won,” Roberts said. “It isn’t settled law, not by a long shot.”
The two also sparred at length over immigration.
Asked what to do about the approximately 66,000 children from Central America who have come to the United States, Orman said the U.S. needs to start advertising in those countries that parents shouldn’t send their children here and, if they do, “We’re going to process them, and we’re going to send them home.”
Roberts repeatedly said the answer to the problem of the children is to “secure the border.”
He said he supports repeal of an anti-human-trafficking law that requires a hearing process before deportation of children from countries other than Canada and Mexico.
“If you come illegally, you have to go back,” he said.
Roberts also repeatedly accused Orman of favoring “amnesty” for illegal immigrants – a charge Orman just as repeatedly denied.
“We can secure the border and have a humane immigration policy,” Orman said.
The last question in the debate may have elicited the most entertaining responses: The two candidates were asked to say something nice about each other.
Orman went first and praised Roberts’ service as a Marine. “Every time I’ve had an opportunity to talk privately with the senator, he’s been a gentleman with a great sense of humor,” Orman said.
Roberts’ response to the same question was more of a backhanded compliment.
“I would say that you are a very well-dressed opponent,” Roberts told Orman. “I admire your accumulation of wealth. I have a little question about how you got there from here, but that’s the American dream.”
In the hour and a half before the debate – organized by The Eagle, the Topeka Capital-Journal and KSN and KSNT television stations – supporters of both candidates engaged in a boisterous demonstration outside KSN in Wichita.
Orman supporters outnumbered those who turned out for Roberts 10-to-1, masking chants of “Roberts! Roberts! Roberts!” with their own shouts of “Orman is the man for us!”
Janice Bradley was one of 60 to 70 Orman supporters who joined the demonstration, most of them a part of the advocacy group Women for Kansas. She said she wanted Roberts voted out of office because “we need a change in Washington.”
“Pat Roberts has been a fixture there for years, and he’s out of touch with Kansas,” she said over the noise of the crowd. She flipped through a handful of hand-painted signs that blasted Roberts’ attendance record at committee meetings and questioned his Kansas residency.
Across from the TV station, more Orman supporters holding campaigns signs filled the street corners. They yelled and waved at passing vehicles.
“D.C. is not working,” Bradley said. “I think it’s clear, and Roberts is part of the problem.”
Bernie Maczka agreed. She sported a Women for Kansas T-shirt and an Orman button while standing on the southwest corner of Main and Eighth.
“People don’t realize there is hope,” she said. “If the eligible voters would get out there and vote, we could get things changed.”
Though heavily outnumbered, the 10 Roberts supporters in attendance refused to back down. Campaign banners for Roberts held high above their heads, they marched in pairs across Main Street, shouting their support.
After the Orman demonstrators began to disperse around 6:15 p.m., Patrick Hines was still holding a large “Pat Roberts for U.S. Senate” sign.
He said voters should back Roberts because he has an established track record with constituents.
“With Roberts, you know where he stands on hot-button issues,” Hines said. “With his track records and longevity, we believe he’s the right person for the job.”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.