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A Wealthy Independent Could Upend Roberts in Kansas

Eric Pianin

After surviving a tough Tea Party challenge in last summer’s GOP primary,  Senator Pat Roberts appeared on track to an easy win for a  fourth six-year term. But that was before a relatively weak Democratic nominee dropped out of the race and ceded his support to millionaire businessman Greg Orman, who is running as an independent. Now Roberts and Orman are locked in a virtual tie. 

For sure, Roberts had egg on his face after The New York Times reported that he no longer owned a house in Kansas – proof to many that the cranky, 78-year-old politician had been in Washington too long and had lost touch with average Kansans. And he’s without question the most vulnerable Republican incumbent seeking reelection.  

Without Roberts in the win column, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the GOP to reclaim control of the Senate. “It will be up to us, to Kansas, to determine who will be in the majority,” he said on Wednesday in a debate. 

The veteran senator says the “eyes of the nation” are on his state to determine the control of the Senate, but for now, Kansas voters are torn between granting Roberts another term and casting their lot with a little-known wealthy businessman who is running as an independent. 

Related: Kansas Shakeup Dims GOP Senate Takeover Bid 

Just when it looked as if he had a clear path to victory in the fall general election in heavily Republican Kansas, the Democratic nominee Chad Taylor dropped out of the race and effectively threw his support to Greg Orman, a wealthy investor and businessman who was gaining traction as an independent candidate. 

Orman’s popularity began to surge in the polls after state Republicans struck out in court in a bid to force the Democratic Party to replace Taylor on the ballot—and once again split the anti-Roberts vote. Orman refused to say which party he would caucus with if he won election, and instead offered himself as a refreshing breath of non-partisanship. 

Roberts appeared hapless and sinking in the polls until the national GOP sent in reinforcements to try to halt the Republican senator’s slide in popularity. Since then, Roberts’ new campaign strategists have staunched the hemorrhaging and gone on the attack.

The Roberts campaign suggests that Orman is too rich, too liberal and too close to the views of President Obama to adequately represent his state. 

Related: Dems Have 30 Days to Turn It Around and Prove the Polls Wrong

The Roberts camp has repeatedly questioned Orman’s ties to Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs board member who was convicted in 2012 of insider trading and is now serving  time in a federal prison. The strategy seems to be working. A new CNN/ORC poll released on Wednesday showed a virtual tie, with Robert leading Orman 49 percent to 48 percent among likely registered voters.

The Players
Sen. Pat Roberts (R) – The acerbic Roberts, 78, was first elected to the  Senate in 1996, after a lengthy career as a congressional aide and House member. His deadpan manner is reminiscent of the style of his long-time patron, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS). He is the third-ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee—where he has shaped key farm legislation. He also serves on the Finance Committee, Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee and Select Committee on Ethics.

Related: Sen. Roberts Survives Tea Party Challenge

Greg Orman (Ind) – Orman, 45, a Minnesota native, holds an economics degree from Princeton University. He worked for the McKinsey & Co. consultancy firm before making his fortune by investing in more than a dozen business ventures – including Environmental Light Concepts, which designed and installed energy-efficient lighting systems. His politics are eclectic: He campaigned for Republican George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and for the presidential campaign of Independent Ross Perot in 1992. Orman has been a political independent since 2010.

The Issues
Roberts has been a vocal foe of Obamacare – favoring repeal of the legislation – and he even called for the resignation of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – a long-time family friend – after the Obamacare website experienced serious technical problems. Roberts is a staunch abortion foe – and has voted several times for federal restrictions on access to abortion services. He also supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of comprehensive immigration reform. And he is a favorite of the National Rifle Association because of his unwavering opposition to new gun control measures or background checks.

While Orman portrays himself as a non-partisan problem solver, he has been evasive on how he might vote on key issues. As The Washington Post noted recently, Orman insists he lacks sufficient information to say whether he would vote for the Keystone XL pipeline, and he declines to say how he would “strengthen” gun control measures – or whether he would back a ban on assault weapons.

However, he says he supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. He also favors broad-based tax reform, measures to prevent soaring long-term deficits driven by entitlement spending and a two-term limit on service in the Senate.

Related: Senate Debates Are Mostly Heat and No Light

Money
Roberts, the long-standing incumbent, has substantially outraised Orman, $4.7 million to $670,678, through July16, according to Open Secrets. But those figures are dated, and the two sides have pumped up their fundraising and ad buys ever since. Moreover, outside groups are pouring millions of dollars more into the race with hard-hitting campaign ads. 

Wildcard
Orman’s substantial wealth, extensive property holdings and business and personal relationship with Gupta could end up hurting him a lot. While Roberts has been criticized for no longer owning property in Kansas, Orman’s problem may be that he owns too much very expensive property.

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