In the suddenly and surprisingly tight Senate race in Kansas, one gets the distinct impression that the troubled campaign of Sen. Pat Roberts is still winging it — perhaps even right-winging it.
Wearing the purple colors of Kansas State University, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to this town named after the Declaration of Independence to testify to the veteran lawmaker's conservative bona fides in front of a standing-room-only crowd at a pancake breakfast.
Palin praised Roberts for joining Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign a year earlier against President Obama's health law, which culminated in a 16-day government shutdown. She said the American people "need to have fighters there in the Senate who will fight like our country's future depends on it, because it does."
Three days earlier and some 300 miles west in Dodge City, Roberts' campaign reached out to another GOP icon who offered a very different take.
"Some of those guys are so far on the right they're going to fall out of the Capitol," warned former Sen. Bob Dole as he stood with Roberts before a crowd in a shopping mall atrium.
"The government was shut down, not by Pat … but by a guy named Sen. Cruz from Texas," the 91-year-old former presidential nominee said. "There's nothing wrong with compromise to get things done for Kansas and the rest of the nation."
Roberts is leaning heavily on Republican stars like Palin and Dole as he tries to reenergize an election campaign that had all but lapsed two months ago. After he survived a tough primary challenge, Roberts falsely believed he would coast to victory in November. But as the contrasting political messages at his recent rallies show, Roberts' revamped campaign is still struggling to find its footing.
"Pat's campaign was a little slow getting off the blocks after the primary," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) acknowledged. He "went dark and silent for a while and took it for granted. That's changed now."
As a three-term Republican senator facing a party now dominated by tea party ideologies, Roberts initially based his strategy on one goal: Let no opponent get to your right.
What he failed to predict was a viable challenge from his left, something that few would have thought possible in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
As Roberts scaled back his politicking after the August primary, wealthy businessman Greg Orman, running as an independent, blitzed local airwaves with advertisements touting himself as an antidote to hyper-partisanship. It didn't help that some voters began to see Roberts as out of touch with the state after the New York Times reported in February that the home he lists as his residence in Kansas belongs to longtime donors. He lives most of the time in northern Virginia.
At the same time, the rift among the moderate and conservative wings of the Kansas GOP has deepened in recent years.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's embrace of a small-government policies, including pushing through a massive tax cut, backfired when some Kansans began to blame him for the state's economic woes. Now, his reelection is in doubt too.
Former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, whom Roberts replaced in the Senate, criticized Roberts in the Kansas City Star for moving too far right, adding she had declined a request to appear in a campaign ad for him.
Roberts' rightward lurch made his appearance with Dole last week all the more conspicuous. Two years ago, Roberts helped defeat an international treaty on disability rights that Dole had personally championed but that tea party conservatives opposed.
As Orman's campaign began to catch fire, Chad Taylor, the Democratic candidate, withdrew from the race, consolidating the anti-Roberts vote and sounding alarm bells among national Republicans concerned that their best chance to regain control of the Senate in a decade could be spoiled in one of the nation's reddest states.
Reinforcements from the national party are due to arrive this month, augmenting new campaign leadership that was installed last month, including Chris LaCivita, whose past work included producing ads for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth operation that targeted John F. Kerry in 2004.
A new campaign manager, Corry Bliss, arrived last month to find the operation lacking basic staples — no yard signs, not even a working printer in the headquarters. Even as he and a revamped team immediately began laying the groundwork for the campaign to come, no polling was done to gauge the extent of the challenge ahead.
"They knew they were not doing well," said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. "Why spend the money to simply reaffirm that?"
Roberts' new strategy is based on two key calculations: first, that Kansans might be willing to put aside frustrations about Roberts to increase the chances that the Senate is controlled by Republicans in January; and second, that Orman's attempts to float above the partisan fray won't survive a sustained attack. Roberts' new campaign leadership is aggressively questioning Orman's ties to Rajat Gupta, a business partner now serving a prison term for insider trading.
Job one now seems to be locking down the GOP, winning back conservatives who had been reluctant to support him in the primary. And, just as he did before the primary, Roberts is offering lots of red meat. At half a dozen events across the state recently, he accused President Obama of seeking to institute "national socialism" in the country, and called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "a dictator."
It wasn't clear the message was resonating with Republicans. Shirley Degee, 53, who supported Roberts in the past, said it looked as if he had been seduced by the trappings of Washington. "He's been having a good time in their private gym and their private restaurants and their limo rides," she said.
Orman has been seeking to capitalize not only on the split among Republicans, but also the broader dissatisfaction with Washington.
"Politicians on both sides of the aisle are more interested in pleasing the special interests and the extremists in their own party than they are solving problems. And Roberts is emblematic of that," he said in an interview. "He's followed his party sharply to the right."
Orman says that, if elected, he would caucus with whichever party is in the majority, since it would be in the best interests of Kansas. At a debate Wednesday, he said he would not support Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid for majority leader in the next Congress.
But Republicans call that a ruse. "Let's be honest: He's a Democrat," Arizona Sen. John McCain said at an event in a Republican field office in the Kansas City suburbs. "Why is it, very frankly, that this guy hasn't been smoked out?"