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Can Ted Cruz save Pat Roberts in Kansas?

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Orlin Wagner/AP

(Read caption) Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas (l.) answers a question during a debate with independent candidate Greg Orman (r.) in Overland Park, Kan., Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

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Can Ted Cruz save Pat Roberts? On Thursday he’s going to try. Firebrand Senator Cruz (R) of Texas, an architect of last year’s government shutdown and a favorite of the GOP’s tea party faction, travels to Wichita, Kan., to kick off a bus tour for (highly) endangered Sen. Roberts (R) of Kansas.

Fellow conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma will join in the kickoff. Together they’ll try to paint independent candidate Greg Orman as a tool of the Democrats and emphasize Roberts's Republican credentials. That may be the best and only hope for Roberts to keep his seat.

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“To stop the liberal Harry Reid-Barack Obama agenda, we must win the Senate Majority – and we can’t do that without Pat Roberts back in the Senate,” Cruz said in a statement prior to the event.

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So far, the Roberts campaign has received little spark from high-profile GOP surrogate campaigners. Former Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas icon, didn’t appear to do much to stir event crowds.

But Cruz might help. Roberts’s problem in this unusual race (the Democrat candidate dropped out) is that he’s losing his own voters – Republicans, in a highly Republican state, who generally support, you know, Republicans.

At least he’s been losing too many of them. You can see this in a recent SurveyUSA poll of the state. Roberts gets just 66 percent of the Republican base in this survey. Mr. Orman gets 27 percent of the Republican vote, along with 71 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents.

Unsurprisingly, Orman leads overall in this poll, 47 to 42 percent.

Now this is just one poll, and there’s evidence Roberts has reversed this trend lately. A CNN/ORC survey released on Wednesday had Roberts as the choice of 82 percent of likely Republican voters, with Orman getting only 15 percent. Overall, Roberts leads in this survey, 49 to 48 percent.

Given the margin of error, that’s essentially a tie. Thus Roberts needs to keep working on his GOP problem if he’s going to earn a fourth term.

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“Turnout is likely to be key – the higher the number of Republicans who vote, the better for Roberts, and Republicans have been at least 43 percent of the vote (and usually higher) in Kansas elections since 2000,” CNN polling director Keating Holland told the network’s Eric Bradner and Dana Bash.

Enter Cruz. It’s possible moderates may be turned off by some of Cruz’s positions on issues. He’s one of the few Republicans to publicly denounce the US Supreme Court’s recent move to not accept gay marriage cases, essentially legalizing same-sex marriage in 30 states. He was prominent in the government shutdown last year – an action opposed by most in the GOP establishment.

But right now, independents and moderates look to be swinging Orman’s way in any case. Roberts needs to rally conservatives to his side in a very tight race. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys puts Orman in the lead by 2.4 percentage points at the moment.

“As a smart operative told us this week, Kansas voters seem to have decided to fire Roberts, but they do not yet know if they want to hire Orman. This is one campaign that truly matters, and the outcome is thoroughly unpredictable,” writes Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball.