The race for the U.S. Senate seat from Kansas is about to get nastier.
The contest between Republican incumbent Pat Roberts and independent challenger Greg Orman is essentially tied, both sides believe. It’s perhaps the closest Senate race in America.
That means Kansas voters can expect a continued onslaught of negative TV ads and accusatory mailers through the last full week of the campaign.
“Massive amounts of out-of-state money,” said Missouri Democratic consultant Richard Martin, who is not connected with either campaign. “And as long as it’s a toss-up, the out-of-state money will be entirely negative.”
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As of Friday, outside groups had spent more than $10 million in the race, by far the most third-party campaign spending in state history. Of that total, Roberts supporters have outspent Orman backers by a two-to-one margin.
Total spending in the race could approach $15 million, also a record. In Roberts’ last Senate campaign in 2008, outsiders spent less than $400,000.
The campaigns and their supporters figure to use their remaining cash to get core voters to the polls. That’s particularly important for Roberts, who may enjoy a get-out-the-vote advantage over Orman’s ad hoc independent campaign structure.
But both sides are also making energetic last-minute appeals to a dwindling cohort of undecided voters. Those voters — perhaps 10,000 people — could determine the outcome, the campaigns think.
“This race is a late closer,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “It has to be, because it’s pretty obvious people like Orman better, but they may agree with Roberts more.”
While both campaigns have sharpened their attacks in recent days — particularly on social media — Roberts and his allies are expected to be more aggressive in the closing week. Republicans have concluded there is little they can do now to improve their candidate’s image with voters, operatives say, leaving a negative campaign their best option.
Roberts spokesman Corry Bliss said Orman’s views will remain the issue in the final days.
“Voters in Kansas know that despite the millions of dollars of slick TV ads, Greg Orman is a liberal Democrat,” he said. “That’s our message.”
Orman has stepped up his direct criticism of Roberts, but appears committed to his plague-on-both-parties approach to voters. In a recent speech billed as a “final argument,” Orman called current political rhetoric “drivel … inherently corrupt … poison.”
Orman spokesman Mike Phillips echoed the criticism.
“Kansans want someone who will show up and work for them to solve problems, not play political games,” he said.
Some evidence suggests Orman’s campaign has stabilized after dropping in recent weeks. On Oct. 1, the businessman led Roberts in the Real Clear Politics average by 5.3 percent, but just two weeks later the candidates were tied at 45.2 percent each.
A multimillion-dollar barrage of anti-Orman TV ads from outside groups pushed the challenger’s numbers down, the campaigns believe. Republicans say the commercials overcame Orman’s spending advantage in August and September, when Roberts largely disappeared from TV screens in the state.
But the ads haven’t boosted Roberts into the lead. A Rasmussen poll released Thursday showed Orman leading Roberts among likely voters in Kansas by five points, 49 percent to 44 percent.
“Though things don’t look quite as hopeless for Roberts as they did a few weeks ago,” analyst Charlie Cook wrote last week, “the incumbent’s poll numbers are said to be awful.”
That leaves the Republicans with little choice but to continue the party’s anti-Orman efforts, analysts say.
Last week, for example, the Roberts campaign criticized Orman’s role with Digital Teleport, a fiber optic firm acquired by Kansas City Power & Light Co. starting in the 1990s. The firm was part of Orman’s portfolio while he worked at the energy company, but it eventually declared bankruptcy and dismissed roughly 60 workers.
Roberts’ campaign claims the bankruptcy reflects Orman’s mismanagement and poor communication with workers and the public.
In an earlier interview with The Star, Orman defended his record with the firm.
“At the time I got involved with it, it had $7 million in revenues and $400 million in debt,” he said. “The writing was on the wall. We tried to do everything we could do turn it around, but it was not salvageable.”
Orman’s campaign, meanwhile, is expected to continue its criticism of Roberts’ attendance in the Senate.
Records show Roberts has missed more than two-thirds of all Senate Finance committee hearings since 2007. Earlier reports show the incumbent missed more than half of the hearings in the Agriculture and Health, Education, Labor and Pension committees.
Roberts’ campaign does not dispute the attendance figures, but says they’re taken out of context.
“Senator Roberts works hard for Kansas every day,” Bliss said, pointing to a 97 percent voting record on the Senate floor.
Roberts has not used his Senate career as a major talking point in his campaign. Instead, he’s argued an Orman victory would help Democrats retain control of the Senate next year.
That argument has boosted Roberts, some Republicans said, but may be losing its punch. Republican candidates are gaining momentum in other states, making the Kansas outcome less critical in retaining the Senate.
So Roberts is turning to another motivator: a continuing series of endorsements and campaign joint appearances with well-known GOP politicians.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will campaign for Roberts in Johnson County on Monday, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky plans a Tuesday appearance on Roberts’ behalf. The senator’s campaign also released endorsements from more than 50 Johnson County Republicans on Friday.
The focus on Johnson County may reflect Roberts’ low poll numbers in the 3rd Congressional District, Republican consultants say. They also show Roberts needs to attract Republican voters across the ideological spectrum if he’s to win Nov. 4.
In a Survey USA/KSN-TV poll taken in early October, Roberts got only 66 percent of Republican votes. Orman got 27 percent.
The incumbent can still win the race, analyst Stu Rothenberg said, but only if he can convince those errant Republicans to return to the fold.
“The big question is whether Roberts’ campaign … can get Republicans in the state to see the election primarily as a partisan fight, with control of the Senate at stake,” he said.
“If they can, Roberts will win. If they can’t, anything could happen.”