Although midterm elections are less than two weeks away, a number of races in Kansas are still up in the air. Polls haven’t indicated a clear favorite for governor or the U.S. senate. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur takes a look at the political makeup of Kansas voters and why some incumbent Republicans are fighting for their lives.
Salad plates and empty breadbaskets are cleared away from tables at a recent luncheon in Wichita. A gubernatorial debate, the second in as many days, is about to begin. Incumbent Republican Sam Brownback is going up against a serious challenger in Democrat Paul Davis.
Stu Melcher attended the debate hosted by the Kansas Association of Broadcasters. He hails from Liberal, Kansas, but says, like most people in his town, he’s a conservative. He believes anti-incumbency feelings are high throughout the state.
“As one of my friends said, we need to kick out all the incumbents, no matter who they are, what party they are, and start again,” he chuckles.
Melcher isn’t alone. Despite Republicans having an 80-plus year reign over Kansas’ U.S. Senate seats, Roberts, who's held one for 17 years, is fending off a formidable first time politician in Independent Greg Orman. During debates, Roberts has taken to portraying Orman as Democrat in disguise.
Roberts stated at a debate at the Kansas State Fair, “He says he’s a Republican, then he says he’s a Democrat. Just this year he becomes an Independent. Ladies and gentlemen, what will Greg Orman be next year?”
While national issues of immigration reform, military action in the Middle East and federal spending were also included in recent debates, they won’t be the reasons either Orman or Roberts wins, according to Neal Allen, a political science professor at Wichita State University.
“In both the governor’s race and the senate race, clearly candidate specific issues about candidate behavior and character are going to be important," says Allen.
Allen says the two races are leaning more towards popularity contests. While Roberts is a Republican, he helps make up a Congress with a collective job approval rating of about 13 percent. Greg Orman has campaigned on the idea that partisanship is the problem in Washington and that independents are the solution.
“The fact that he's not a democrat is certainly part of his message. It seems to be part of why he tends to be running far ahead where Democrats normally do in Kansas," Allen says. "Although, we should note his support is not that different than Paul Davis.”
Allen says party lines aren’t drawn as boldly in state politics. That’s how Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, was able to win elections in Kansas during the 2000s—a time when president George W. Bush enjoyed overwhelming support throughout the state. Allen says that in voters’ minds, state officials can be held more accountable than those heading off to the nation’s capital.
“So, you see in the case of the current governor race, Brownback has put in place certain policies and has advocated for those policies," Allen says. "Voters have a chance to judge those policies and connect them to him personally--and right now, that connection seems to be more negative than positive.”
Someone who knows incumbency all too well is Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and a Democrat who represented the 4th Congressional District in Kansas for 18 years. He defeated Garner E. Shriver, a longtime Republican, in the 1976 election. He cites the same anti-incumbency sentiments as keys to his success.
“It was the beginning of an era when people were kind of disenchanted with Washington—post Watergate," Glickman says, "so I think I capitalized on some of the feelings that are much more profound today then they were back then.”
As Glickman puts it, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. He was able to maintain his seat by keeping up his reputation as a centrist. Eventually, he took pro-choice and pro-gun regulation stances in Washington, while his district back home became more and more conservative.
“The Republicans certainly capitalized on that," Glickman says. "I had an opponent, Todd Tiarht, who had a very well-developed, grass roots organization—kind of like what I had the first time. And so, Tiahrt did to me what I did to Garner E. Shriver.”
Glickman says he keeps a close eye on Kansas politics, including this year’s races. He believes voter turnout will be paramount for all candidates.
“Will the base really turn out for Roberts? He had that primary with [Tea Party candidate Milton Wolf], so the questions is, is he going to get those people back, or not?," Glickman asks. "And then, Brownback has lost a lot of Republican support--whether those people will turn out and vote against him, it’s just too difficult to say.”
Glickman says it’s a case of Greg Orman convincing Republicans he’s a true Independent, and of Paul Davis asking moderate Republicans to trust him as a moderate Democrat.
They’ve got about two more weeks.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur