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GOP's scorched-earth Kansas plan
Control of the Senate is potentially at stake in Kansas, and the GOP is beginning to double down.
With a two-man race now looking all but certain, national Republicans are planning a scorched-earth offensive to frame Sen. Pat Roberts's (R-Kan.) independent opponent, Greg Orman, as a shady businessman.
Their first volley this weekend: reports that Orman represented Rajat Gupta - the former Goldman Sachs board member who incurred criminal and civil fines of more than $18 million and was jailed earlier this year for securities fraud - on a two-person board of a Cayman Islands private equity partnership.
Kansas Republicans say to expect more information on his business dealings to come out in the coming weeks - likely as a systematic drip-drip of information, to keep the issue alive throughout the race. An Orman aide dismissed any potential damage, saying "the fundamentals of the race are still there, and that is, people are tired of the Washington dysfunction, and they're tired of Pat Roberts."
The GOP will also begin propping up the vulnerable incumbent senator with support from revered national Republican figures to help him keep the seat.
Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) are both stumping for Roberts in the state this week, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is heading there for campaign event next week. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are both scheduled for appearances in October.
The need to boost Roberts's image is imperative with six weeks to go until Election Day. Democrats pushed to get their struggling nominee, Chad Taylor, out of the race in the expectation that Orman would caucus with them. With Taylor appearing now to be off the ballot for good, recent polling has shown Orman leading Roberts in a head-to-head fight by 6 to 10 points.
Republicans are hoping that dynamic will change once they're able to introduce Kansas voters to Orman. Roberts only just went up with his first ad of the general election fight last week, while Orman's been on the air near-constantly with positive ads touting his independence since the August primary fight ended.
Newly installed Roberts campaign manager Corry Bliss argued that when voters get to know Orman, they'll realize his message rings hollow.
"There's not a single thing that Greg Orman is honest about: his political views, which party he'll caucus with, his business background," he told The Hill.
That's much the same strategy Roberts's campaign used during the primary, however - painting the senator's primary opponent, radiologist Milton Wolf, as dishonest and unethical - and it was only narrowly effective.
Roberts will have to tread lightly - he'll need the conservative grassroots to turn out in November, and many remain furious with the incumbent over his campaign tactics against Wolf.
"The biggest issue that Roberts has is the conservatives are turning their backs on him," said Steve Shute, a state delegate and Tea Party leader. "If this doesn't get fixed in the next month or so there's a real chance that Kansas could turn blue."
Republicans in the state say Roberts has been reaching out to conservatives to try to smooth things over. With a post-primary campaign shake-up that brought on Bliss, veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita and others, they've worked to soothe tensions and quell concerns about his residency too.
Still, Shute said he's skeptical as to whether that effort will be effective.
"I don't think the conservative grassroots in Kansas can be any madder than it is now. I don't know if there's the possibility for a reconciliation," he continued.
Meanwhile, Orman is trying to stay largely above the partisan fray and keep the focus on Roberts as much as possible, eschewing party labels.
Though Roberts is unpopular, President Obama fares even worse in the state, and Orman's best shot lies in remaining nonideological for as long as he possibly can.
That's been his message in his campaign ads, calling himself an independent fighter for Kansas up against a creature of Washington whose only option is, in true Washington fashion, to go negative against Orman.
"Senator Roberts' increasingly desperate and flailing campaign is looking to do anything they can to change the subject from his failed record after 47 years living in Washington, D.C.," said Orman spokesman Sam Edelen. "The debate between a businessman like Greg who's created jobs and a Washington politician like Senator Roberts who is part of the problem there is one we're happy to have for the rest of the campaign."
Roberts's detractors say more details could come out that continue to raise concerns about his ties to Kansas, or lack thereof. The Democratic opposition research group American Bridge pointed to Roberts's 2013 personal financial disclosure forms, which reveal Roberts has eight bank accounts - none of which are located in Kansas.
The GOP machine in the Sunflower State finally seems to be in full gear, though. The campaign of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) - who also faces a tough reelection - is working together more closely now with the senator, a Roberts campaign source said, sharing data and staff resources to the fullest extent possible.
Meanwhile, Democrats' hands are tied on the Senate race. Without an official candidate in the race, there's no real reason for the Democratic Party to engage.Any activity on the part of any Democratic groups would be seen as a boost to Orman as further evidence for his opponents to paint him as a closet Democrat. The Kansas Democratic Party has insisted all its energies are focused on the gubernatorial race, not the Senate.
Roberts has also already begun to hammer Orman for his policy positions on issues like a pathway to citizenship, which he supports, and ObamaCare, which he's said won't be repealed.
Republicans say they have plenty of fodder to effectively brand him as a Democrat beyond that, ranging from his past contributions to party leaders like Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), his brief 2008 Senate run as a Democrat and even his current staff.
Orman recently brought on Mike Phillips to help out with his communications. Phillips previously worked for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
And the campaign believes the focus on his business background will effectively counter any attempts from Democrats to portray Roberts as out of touch with the state.
"Nothing could be more out-of-touch with Kansas voters than the board Greg Orman sat on in the Cayman Islands set up to avoid paying U.S. taxes - and being appointed to that board by a Wall Street criminal," Bliss said.