GOP scrambles in Kansas

Greg Nash

The Democratic candidate’s attempt to exit the Kansas Senate race has made Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) even more vulnerable and upended the playing national playing field for Republicans. 

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Democrat Chad Taylor’s withdrawal on Wednesday opened a clearer path for self-funding independent Greg Orman to take on Roberts. 

However, on Thursday Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) denied Taylor's request, saying he didn't provide sufficient “evidence he would be incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected" and his name would still be on the ballot. 

With Roberts still recovering from a bruising primary fight that left his campaign coffers depleted and with lingering questions over whether he lives in the state, national Republicans are forced to come to his aid. 

First reported by The New York Times, the cavalry is now being sent in to save Roberts, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee tasking veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita to right the fledgling campaign. 

A source close to the campaign confirms LaCivita is joining Roberts's campaign as an adviser and is headed down this weekend to begin his work. He'll be largely advising remotely, however, traveling back and forth between the state and Washington to support Roberts and the rest of the NRSC's operations. The source said LaCivita's move to sign on to the campaign had been in the works for days and wasn't a response to Taylor's exit.

The NRSC, headed by fellow Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, is engaged with Roberts's campaign to bolster his operation, and LaCivita's move is the first of what's expected to be more staff additions in the coming weeks.

But now, as national Republicans seek the six seats they’ll need for control of the Senate, they could have to spend precious resources and attention they would’ve rather used elsewhere to prop up an incumbent who's seat shouldn’t even be on the map.

The NRSC was successful in helping stave off a primary challenge from radiologist Milton Wolf, sending $45,500 to line Roberts's campaign coffers and six staffers to the state in the final week and a half of the primary fight. Still, Roberts was significantly weakened for the general election. Multiple polls showed him leading the four-way field by just single-digits, and one survey, by a Democratic firm, actually showed him lagging behind Orman by 10 points in a head-to-head race. 

He also didn’t do himself any favors by returning “back home” post-primary, as Roberts campaign manager Leroy Towns put it, meaning Roberts's home in Virginia. And Republicans in the state say they’re concerned he’s ramped down his campaign since the primary, noting he hasn’t run any ads over the past month, while Orman has been up on air consistently.

There’s a potential that, even if Roberts is defeated, the outcome of the race wouldn’t be that damaging for Republicans, because Orman has indicated he would likely caucus with whichever party takes the majority in the Senate this fall.

But the candidate has been less clear about what he’d do if Kansas becomes the deciding seat for control of the upper chamber.

Democrats in the state say they’re confident he’d caucus with them, based on his position on various social issues, like his support for LGBT rights and campaign finance reform.

Even Republicans are acting on that assumption, and it’s one that’s paradoxically key to their hopes of holding onto the seat. They plan to paint Orman as a shill for the Democratic Party and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), hopeful that the red lean of the state would be too much for Orman to overcome if they’re successful.

And they believe there’s considerable evidence to make their case, noting his tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and his toying with a Senate bid as a Democrat in 2007.

Still, Democrats are enthusiastic at his prospects, noting he can self-fund and bring his business acumen to the race as a contrast to Roberts’s Washington experience. Orman graduated from Princeton University and worked at McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm, before founding a successful lighting company and then co-founding a private equity firm.

Taylor’s exit was universally seen as a serious blow to Roberts’s reelection chances, with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report rating the senator the most vulnerable GOP incumbent following the news, citing concerns among local Republicans that Roberts had taken his foot off the pedal following his successful primary fight.

State Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R), who said he’s working for both Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) campaigns, confirmed the Roberts campaign had ramped down some since the primary and said he agreed that Roberts hadn’t been in Kansas as much as even Moran, who is tasked with leading the GOP’s battle to regain the Senate.

“I just don’t think his campaign has been as aggressive as it was during the primary,” O’Donnell told The Hill. “Obviously, Kansas is a Republican state. The last time we elected a Democrat, my grandparents weren’t alive. Kansas is not going to elect a Democrat. So I do think they weren’t as aggressive, especially when it was a split field.”

Taylor’s move, however, is likely to change that.

O’Donnell said the campaign has been encouraged to bring on more staff, and it planned to do so. There’s been talk within the campaign of “bringing in the top guns,” the GOP legislator said, just before news of LaCivita’s hire broke. 

Part of the problem is Brownback’s serious race has already attracted most of the GOP talent in the state.

“A lot of the most effective Republican political strategists have all been committed to Gov. Brownback, because no one assumed there would be any sort of substantial competition this year for Senator Roberts,” he said. “Especially after his primary, everyone assumed he would be coasting.”

O’Donnell said he ultimately expects Moran to go all-in for Roberts.

“I can guarantee you one thing — Sen. Moran is not going to let Sen. Roberts lose,” O’Donnell said. “Sen. Moran is the most popular politician in Kansas, and his gravitas is needed. And I’m sure we’ll feel it soon.”

This post was updated at 4:54 p.m.