Monday, July 28, 2014

RACKAWAY: Is Roberts’ seat really vulnerable?

By DR. CHAPMAN RACKAWAY, Insight Kansas | 3/8/2013

Most Kansans would probably think the very definition of a safe U.S. Senate seat is that of Pat Roberts.

The three-term senator has won every election he contested and has never earned less than 60 percent of the vote. Roberts also is a respected voice in the Senate, with history as chair of the Intelligence Committee. Roberts likely will win again next year, but is facing three challenging realities that might make his 2014 re-election effort his toughest yet.

Most Kansans would probably think the very definition of a safe U.S. Senate seat is that of Pat Roberts.

The three-term senator has won every election he contested and has never earned less than 60 percent of the vote. Roberts also is a respected voice in the Senate, with history as chair of the Intelligence Committee. Roberts likely will win again next year, but is facing three challenging realities that might make his 2014 re-election effort his toughest yet.

First, Roberts lost his senior position on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Membership shifts put a more senior Republican on the panel, which took Roberts out of his ranking minority spot. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., was removed from the House Agriculture Committee, providing a convenient parallel, except for the fact that Huelskamp’s removal was retaliatory while Roberts’ was procedural. Still, the senator might struggle with fundraising as agricultural interests look to the new senior Republican, Mississippi’s Thad Cochrane. Robert’s age might work against him as well — if re-elected, the senator will be 84 at the end of his next term.

Second, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, Roberts is the second-most anonymous senator in the country. More than 40 percent of Kansans surveyed could not identify Roberts, placing him ahead of only first-term U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Public Policy Polling was one of the most accurate pollsters in 2012, giving the findings weight. Roberts can take solace in the fact that his approval numbers were higher than disapproval, and other elected officials in the state have even lower numbers. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s approval stands at just 37 percent, yet he appears poised to cruise to re-election as Democrats continue to lack a candidate around whom to rally in 2014. Another Roberts advantage lies in that there is no likely Democrat to challenge him in the general election.

Roberts’ third, and toughest, challenge is the possibility of a primary opponent on the right. Club for Growth, emboldened by victories like the Kansas primary purge of moderate Republicans last year, has taken that model to Congress, soliciting names of moderate Republicans in the House to recruit competitors against. Unlike the 2012 primary lead-up that happened quietly, the next phase of their attempted purge will be very public. The group recently launched PrimaryMyCongressman.com, where voters can submit the name of their Republican member of Congress for a primary challenger. The website undoubtedly will serve as a public invitation for conservative candidates to emerge across the country. An aggressive self-described conservative might decide to ride that wave into a challenge for Roberts’ seat.

According to the Public Policy Polling poll, just 42 percent of Republicans would vote to re-nominate Roberts today, against 34 percent that would prefer someone more conservative. Despite a recent rightward shift, particularly in response to the Benghazi attacks, Roberts remains in the shadows. A firebrand candidate who wanted to challenge him from the right might have a chance. Likely names do not compare well, though. Roberts has big leads over specific GOP alternatives Public Policy Polling tested — a 21 point edge against Todd Tiahrt, 31 over Tim Huelskamp, and 36 points over Kris Kobach.  

Roberts can take solace in powerful allies, having the state GOP machinery behind him. The motive force that helped Roberts in 2008 and conservative candidates in 2012, David Kensinger, could serve as Roberts’ most powerful ally in 2014. The support of Kensinger likely would deter the strongest of challengers who learned the lesson to not challenge the governor and his allies, keeping a vulnerable senator’s seat safe.  

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University and a member of the Insight Kansas writers group.

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