Hutchinson, Kan. – At Saturday’s much-anticipated senate debate, held at the Kansas State Fair, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts fulfilled a promise he made earlier this week that he would be more aggressive following a campaign upheaval undertaken after his Democratic nominee announced he was withdrawing from the race.
Squaring off against Independent Greg Orman, a 45-year-old businessman, Roberts mentioned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid 17 times, compared Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill to a Confederate Army renegade, and pressed Orman on his true political identity.
The 78-year-old Roberts pounded away at Orman, using his 2008 vote for President Barack Obama and his campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to paint the political novice as a wishy-washy liberal having no “principles” or “backbone.”
“I just want to know when you’re going to take a stand and tell us what party you’re going to caucus with. What are you going to be?” Roberts asked Orman, though time expired on the hour-long debate before the challenger could answer.
The caucus decision could prove important if Republicans fail to achieve a majority in the Senate. Roberts is hammering on that uncertainty, reminding voters that a Democratic-leaning Independent could keep the chamber in Reid’s hands.
For his part, the genial Orman, who bears striking resemblance to actor Mark Ruffalo, left political ammunition on the table in Saturday’s exchange.
“I suspect senator, I’ve been to Dodge City more this year than you have,” Orman challenged the incumbent, harping on a vulnerability of Roberts’ that was raised during his contentious GOP primary over his residency in Virginia.
When Roberts asked, Orman said he has been to town four times this year.
“Well I’ve got about seven [visits] so you’re wrong on that,” Roberts shot back.
Orman ultimately backed away from the residency question, saying “I don’t think it matters where someone lives, I think it matters how they vote.”
He also stuck to his platform as a centrist candidate whose goal is the end gridlock in the Senate – differing with Roberts less on policy and more on partisanship. Orman, who called himself “fiscally conservative and socially tolerant,” agreed with Roberts on many agriculture issues, including support for crop insurance and opposition to government regulation. Their stark differences did not come to light during the debate, as hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion did not come up.
When pressed on his caucus decision by reporters after the debate, Orman remained steadfastly non-committal.
“I’m going to caucus with the party that’s willing to commit to a pro-problem solving agenda,” he said.
Asked how he will determine which party is making that pro-problem solving commitment, Orman remained cagey.
“So if Harry Reid attempts to,” Orman began, before correcting. “If the Harry Reid model of the senate persists, which is preventing amendments, preventing bi-partisanship, we’ll be in a position to hold whoever’s in the majority accountable.”
“I am asking a lot of voters,” Orman admitted, saying that he hopes they will “analyze the speeches I’ve given; come to our events; learn who I am.”
The circumstances surrounding how Orman became Roberts’ strongest challenger were also discussed both during the debate and with reporters.
After Taylor’s Wednesday announcement that he would be removing his name from the ballot, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, announced that Taylor would have to stay on the ballot because he had failed to provide evidence that he was incapable of seeking office. Taylor has said he will appeal the decision. Ironically, state Democrats are pushing for the appeal to succeed.
After Taylor’s announcement, it came to light that Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, had contacted Taylor urging him to drop out.
Roberts slammed the outsider effort on Friday and again at Saturday’s debate, comparing McCaskill’s actions to a Civil War-era military raid that weighs heavy in Kansas state history.
“We’ve had a lot of people from Missouri come across the border. Just think of Quantrill: stay in Missouri,” Roberts warned. The reference was to William Quantrill, a Confederate soldier who raided Lawrence, Kan. from pro-slavery Missouri in 1863. Roberts’ great-grandfather, a newspaper publisher, gathered a posse to confront Quantrill, preventing him from burning down the newspaper.
Asked by reporters after the debate if he thought McCaskill was similar to Quantrill, Roberts quipped, “I don’t think she’s going to try burn down my great-grandfather’s newspaper, no.”
Orman has said that he was unaware of Taylor’s decision before the announcement was made and that he has not been in touch with McClaskill or Democrats.
“I’ve never met Claire in my life. I’ve never had a single conservation with a national Democrat,” he told reporters Saturday.
Roberts told reporters that he hoped Taylor goes through with his stated plan to appeal Kobach’s decision, saying that he wanted to get to the bottom of what caused Taylor to change his mind about running.
“What did he get? What was the threat?” Roberts asked reporters rhetorically.
Regardless of what happened behind the scenes, Taylor’s de facto withdrawal and Orman’s ascendance clearly worried Roberts, who replaced long-time campaign director Leroy Towns with Corry Bliss, who worked on Linda McMahon’s failed 2012 Connecticut senate campaign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also stepped in, dispatching Chris LaCivita to held the three-term senator.
“I think Senator Roberts clearly won the debate,” Bliss told TheDC after the debate. “Senator Roberts detailed his conservative results and achievements for Kansas. Greg Orman is a liberal Democrat masquerading as an independent.”
“I think he did good for being a first-time debater,” Orman supporter Timothy Graham told TheDC of his candidate after the contest. “I think he has a good professional presence, which is something that would bode well in Washington D.C.”