Deep-red Kansas should have been an easy hold for Republicans this year, but some big-name GOP officeholders face tough re-election bids that analysts say signal more about the candidates’ troubles than about dissatisfaction with their party as a whole.
Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts served for more than a decade together in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Brownback gave up his seat in 2010 for the governor’s mansion, while Mr. Roberts remains. And both men are now battling to keep their jobs.
Mr. Brownback, who has deep ties to social conservatives and made a brief ill-fated bid for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2008, faces a backlash over a budget that opponents say hurt the state’s schools. Mr. Roberts, meanwhile, is trying to recapture support after a bitter primary against a tea party-backed challenger who said the incumbent had gone Washington, turning his back on Kansas values.
Even after the primary, those attacks stuck, endangering Mr. Roberts, who used to enjoy a reputation as a likable guy from West Kansas.
“This time around, he’s come across as a cranky coot who is really kind of vague about issues that make a difference to a lot of Kansans,” said Mark Peterson, chairman of the political science department at Washburn University in the state capital, Topeka.
“He’s just a total committed member of the team that’s going to protect the borders, get rid of illegals, overturn Obamacare, get rid of Harry Reid,” he said. “For most people in Kansas, those issues are sort of second priority. They’re interested in stuff that actually affects Kansas like farm prices, environmental regulations, concerns about water.”
President Obama won less than 38 percent of the vote in Kansas in 2012, which should generally signal easy sledding for Republicans this year. But Democrats believe the GOP overreached in tacking too far to the right, giving Democratic challengers a chance.
“Kansas historically have been very quick to correct the state and return it to common sense, moderate leadership,” said Jason Perkey, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
One of his party’s targets is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who won election in the 2010 GOP wave but whom Democrats accuse of focusing on partisan battles over election issues and immigration.
He survived a GOP primary challenge and now faces Jean Schodorf, a former Republican state lawmaker who switched parties last year and is now running as a Democrat to unseat him.
Mr. Kobach, who as a college professor was the architect of Arizona’s immigration crackdown laws, has pushed for stricter voter checks in Kansas, drawing the ire of Democrats and spawning four buses of protesters on his front lawn.
Polling shows him with a lead, and he said Kansas voters won’t be swayed by the attacks on him.
“I think it’s the creation of a sense of concern by protests, by agitation, but then when voters realize where candidates stand, they say, ‘Well yes, I’m voting for Kobach, obviously,’” he said.
Mr. Kobach also said he expects Mr. Roberts and Mr. Brownback to survive their races, too.
“I think at the end of the day, results will be closer to what you’d expect,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely you’re going to see Kansas, which is a deep red state, going strongly against the current when it seems like the rest of the country is going to be voting in a Republican direction.”
Democrats had fielded a Senate candidate but he dropped out, leaving the field of challengers to Greg Orman, an independent. Mr. Orman says both parties are broken, and he’s refused to say which party he would caucus with in the Senate.
But his early lead in the polls has evaporated, and the race is now tied, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls.
Mr. Brownback, meanwhile, faces a backlash over his tax-cut agenda, which he said would bring more jobs and revenue, but has for now left a deficit, Mr. Peterson said. Kansas government’s credit rating has been downgraded and budget cuts have hit schools and teachers, angering many potential voters.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls gives Mr. Brownback a slight advantage over Democratic challenger Paul Davis.
But Mr. Perkey said results from early voting that began last week far exceed the Democrats’ expectations and show that Kansans are getting out to vote even in an off-year election.
“Our projections and our goals, we’ve been exceeding [them] by thousands,” he said. “People are fired up about getting out and voting and that doesn’t bode well for any of the incumbents.”