When Pat Roberts faced a conservative primary challenge this summer, he did what most Republican senators have learned to do: turn hard right. Now, facing an unexpectedly strong independent challenge, Roberts is doubling down.
On Thursday, the three-term Kansas senator turned to tea party darling Sarah Palin to rally voters behind his flagging campaign. The former Alaska governor praised Roberts for standing with Sen. Ted Cruz a year ago during his marathon floor speech against President Obama's healthcare law, which preceded a strategy that resulted in a government shutdown.
"He [was] one of the few senators fulfilling campaign promises, doing what the American people asked him to do, standing there on the floor with Sen. Ted Cruz to do what they could to get rid of Obamacare," Palin said.
The location was its own message of sorts – the small town of Independence. Palin and Roberts argued that Greg Orman, a wealthy financier who now leads in some public polls, is hardly the independent voice he casts himself as.
"I know independence," Palin said. "Supporting Barack Obama, supporting Obamacare, supporting amnesty, supporting Harry Reid? That's not independent. That's someone who's trying to schnooker ya, Kansas."
The Roberts campaign's efforts to rally the base may be a successful one in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and which Republicans have reliably carried in presidential elections. It's also one of necessity; Roberts' primary challenger still has not endorsed him.
But Roberts' problems are broader than the divide among Republicans, including the fact that he hasn't maintained a full-time residence in the state. He narrowly fended off a conservative challenger in August, and then his campaign slowed nearly to a halt, underestimating the strength of Orman. The Democratic nominee dropped out of the race, at the urging of local and national Democrats who saw Orman as the most formidable challenger.
Now it's an all-hands-on-deck moment for Republicans in Kansas, the unlikeliest battleground on the 2014 Senate map. Roberts began the week by campaigning with the state's longtime and iconic Republican senator, Robert Dole -- who at one event criticized Cruz and the shutdown strategy that he said hurt the party.
Palin's visit follows one a day earlier by the man who selected her for the national ticket in 2008, John McCain. Roberts said this week that Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and others will be coming to campaign for him as well.
Roberts is framing the election as a simple choice, not between him and Orman but between Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. It's a gamble on his part that a solidly-red state's frustration with Washington is pinned more on a Democratic president and his Senate allies than Congress more broadly.
"The reason the governor is here is that the Republican Party is united," Roberts told an audience of about 300 at a pancake breakfast at the small town's historical museum. "Every square inch of the Republican Party knows what's at stake. We have to take the Senate back as a first step to turning the country around. There is only one person on the ballot that will go to Washington and kick Harry Reid out as opposed to giving him a stamp of approval."