A storm may be brewing.

The Backlash in Kansas

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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The 2004 best-seller “What's the Matter With Kansas?” claimed that voters there had it all backward: They were acting against their own interests by continuing to support Republicans whose economic policies favored the rich. Kansans might keep their guns and protect their marriages from gays, but they didn’t have jobs.

Ten years later, the people of Kansasmay settle the question by throwing two of the state's most vaunted Republican public officials out of office. Former two-term Senator Sam Brownback is trailing a little-known Democrat, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, in his bid for re-election as governor. Brownback swooped into the statehouse in 2011 and turned Kansas into a laboratory of such pure conservatism that he has caused a schism in his party. More than 100 current and former Republican state officeholders have pledged support to his challenger.

Then there’s Senator Pat Roberts, a 33-year veteran of Congress, who is running behind Greg Orman, an independent who is backed by the state's Democrats. It's just possible that control of the U.S. Senate could turn on the outcome of a race in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932.

Roberts thought he was home free after a bloody primary (his opponent, a doctor, put up grisly pictures of gunshot victims, accompanied by jokes). Then the Democrat dropped out, and Roberts found himself facing Orman, a hitherto unknown businessman. Orman is what Roberts is not: young, fresh, not an incumbent and happy to dive into any crowd. He has been polling a few points ahead.

The race isn’t so much about issues as personalities. Orman wants to be vague about which party he'll caucus with if elected. The smart money is betting he will go with the Democrats, even though Orman has made donations to Republicans and voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. He straddles controversial issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, health care and immigration, though Roberts calls him pro-amnesty.

Roberts, who was for the farm bill before he was against it, is a solid conservative -- although not a rabid one like Brownback -- and earned a 93 percent rating from the Heritage Foundation. But he can’t seem to shake the perception that he went native in Washington, resorting to sleeping on a friend’s couch in Dodge City on his infrequent visits home. It's shocking that he didn’t rent a studio, given that he had fair warning that residency in the state you represent was a hot issue after the defeat of his colleague Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.

In a panic, national Republicans have sent reinforcements from headquarters, are putting up ads and began doing opposition research to define the elusive Orman. The biggest hit has been to hype Orman's loose connection to Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs executive who is serving a sentence for insider trading.

But the race isn't so much about Orman as it is a referendum on Roberts. After a group of 70 former Republican lawmakers, Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, endorsed Orman, Roberts began seeking help from one end of the party to the other, including from Sarah Palin.

He has also enlisted former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, whose support for Roberts is a lesson in political generosity. In 2012, Dole, who had just been released from the hospital was wheeled by his wife to the Senate floor to show his support for a United Nations treaty that would prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Roberts surprised Dole by casting a “no” vote.

Former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, another prominent Kansas Republican, has criticized Roberts for the vote and recently refused to film a campaign ad for him.

As for Brownback, a conservative senator for two decades who was elected governor in a landslide, the race is a referendum on his efforts to ram through a pure Koch brothers-inspired agenda (the brothers' flagship company, Koch Industries, is based in Wichita). That meant refusing Medicaid funds, limiting teachers unions, taking thousands off the welfare rolls, cutting education, exempting gun manufacturers from federal regulations, and signing an expansive anti-abortion bill that said life begins at fertilization and that clinics had to meet a new building code or be shut down. Brownback cut taxes so sharply that the state’s surplus has turned into a $333 million deficit this year; he has tried to plug the shortfall by raising the sales tax. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s bond rating this year.

The backlash has been severe. Many of the Republicans who were defeated in Brownback-led primary challenges after they balked at rubber-stamping his agenda have endorsed his opponent, who now has a four to six point lead in polls in this bright red state. It may be a sign of desperation in the Brownback camp that a story about Davis being present during a drug raid in a bar that offered lap dances in the late 1990s has popped up again.

After this election, the next book about the Sunflower State may well be “Kansas Matters.” If Brownback loses, his grand experiment dies with him, and his misadventure will give pause to other Republican governors who want to push through a right-wing agenda, even in conservative states.

As for Roberts, if he loses a fourth term to an independent, it shows that overly comfortable incumbents can be taken down by challengers other than Tea Party populists. President Barack Obama’s ability to enjoy two more years with Democrats in control of the Senate may come down to the victory of a candidate no one had heard of six weeks ago in a state where no one expected an upset.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net