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From red state to blue? Kansas political races leave Republican candidates in peril

In two political races that were on no one's radar only a few months ago, two Kansas Republican incumbents find themselves in serious political peril, as the now-possible outcomes have the potential to shift, among other things, who controls the U.S. Senate. NewsHour's Jeff Greenfield explores whether the candidates may be too conservative for their historically red state.

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  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    This is what you'll see just about any autumn in Kansas: fields of corn that await the harvest, the search for food at a farmer's market or at Oklahoma Joe's always crowed barbecue. And this is what you'll hear: the roar of the crowds and the motorcycles at a Kansas State football game.

    But for all that is familiar in this place, in this season, there is one thing happening here that is almost totally unprecedented. Something so surprising, almost shocking, that it has Republicans from Maine to Hawaii asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?"

    In what is surely the biggest surprise of the 2014 midterms, both Republican Senator Pat Roberts and Republican Governor Sam Brownback find themselves in serious political peril in this most Republican of states. Two races that were on no one's radar a few months ago – one of which may decide who controls the United States Senate.

    It's enough to make an observer like the Kansas City Star's Dave Helling, who's covered politics for almost 35 years, to feel as if he's not in Kansas anymore – where every statewide official and every member of Congress is Republican.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    So if someone had told you up till say eight months ago that you would be seeing the race for both senator and governor develop the way it has, what would you have told them?

  • DAVE HELLING:

    That they're smoking something that's legal in Colorado but not in Kansas. Kansas may be, Jeff, one of the most Republican states in the country. So I don't think anyone a year ago would have thought at any level that either Sam Brownback and certainly Pat Roberts would be in any major trouble. They are.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    For the 78-year-old Roberts, political vulnerability is an unwelcome stranger. First elected to the house 34 years ago, Roberts is finishing his third term in the Senate, continuing a string of GOP victories that stretches back to 1938.

    But Roberts has been hit by the same crosswinds that have buffeted other veteran Republicans: the sense that he's "gone Washington." In February, the New York Times revealed that Roberts has no home in Kansas, that he rents out a room in a supporter's house on a golf course and has rarely been seen back in the state.

    And Roberts is fighting another perception: that he's too much part of the system, a symbol of the older order, and out of step with Tea Party conservatives, something that may be reflected by how he describes himself.

  • PAT ROBERTS:

    People used to ask me all the time what kind of Republican I was, I'm just a Republican. But I would say probably an Eisenhower Republican. I know Bob Dole. He's a very dear friend. He just cut an ad for me. So I'm a Bob Dole Republican. But I'm also the 4th most conservative senator in the Senate.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    This August, Roberts narrowly survived a primary against a Tea Party opponent. Until a few weeks ago, Roberts' best asset may have been the divided opposition. He faced both a Democrat and an Independent.

    Then, Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, leaving Roberts to face 45-year-old Greg Orman, a businessman and co-founder of a private equity firm with the wealth to fund his own campaign. He also has a past that includes membership in both major political parties, both of which he now disavows.

  • GREG ORMAN:

    Both parties take extreme positions. You know the way Harry Reid is running the Senate, he's running the Senate like a dictatorship. He's not allowing compromise, he's not allowing debate. And we've got the same problem in the House with the Republicans so I think both parties are really to blame for the dysfunction that we have in Washington today.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The race has drawn intense national attention because of simple arithmetic: with Republicans needing six seats to take the Senate, a Roberts loss would make that number much tougher to reach. That, Orman says, would give him a lot of leverage should he be elected.

    Perhaps to capitalize on that, Orman is not saying which party he'd align himself with – or as they say in Washington, caucus.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    It falls upon you Mr. Orman to decide who governs the Senate for the next two years. That's a decision you will have to make. Are the voters of Kansas entitled to know before they vote for you what that decision is?

  • GREG ORMAN:

    We will caucus with whichever parties will be willing to promote a pro-problem solving nonpartisan agenda. And if they're not willing to do that then we're not going to work with them.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    If the Senate race here has national implications, the Governor's race seems to illustrate an old political adage, that all or at least a lot of politics is local. Governor Brownback's problem stems not from Democrats but overwhelmingly from Kansas Republicans, who are a special breed.

    The 58-year-old Brownback was elected governor four years ago, after two terms in the U.S. Senate. He brought with him a strongly conservative agenda, both on social issues like abortion and with historically large tax cuts, an experiment Brownback said in supply-side economics. For national Republicans, tax-cuts are an unalloyed good. But Kansas Republicans? Well…

  • DAVE HELLING:

    They like their senators to have a strong Republican point of view. The demands of being governor are quite different. And when he came back, he sort of pursued what was very, very obviously a strongly conservative agenda.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    When those cuts opened up a projected budget short fall of hundreds of millions of dollars and threatened the level of school funding, that unsettled moderate Kansas Republicans and widened a rift between them and conservatives that had been around for years.

    Two years ago, Brownback led successful primary campaigns against moderate legislators. But this past July, those Republicans retaliated against Brownback by joining 100 fellow

    Republicans in endorsing the Democratic opponent, state legislator Paul Davis. Davis has seized on Brownback's experiment label.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Is this a state that isn't particularly fond of experiments in politics?

  • PAUL DAVIS:

    Well I would say yes. It is definitely a state that is not particularly fond of experiments. They don't want a governor who's going to turn their state into a science laboratory.

  • SAM BROWNBACK:

    People I don't think they don't like change. I don't think they trust change. So I came out here and said, "Look we haven't been growing. We've got to get our tax rates down so we can grow."

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    And about that experiment word?

  • SAM BROWNBACK:

    Yeah, I shouldn't have used that word. But the good news is, it's working well. We're growing. We've got record employment in Kansas.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Then after a brief discussion with an aide.

  • SAM BROWNBACK:

    The things we're doing are not anything new. Going to, getting your incomes taxes down, we got nine states without an income tax. That's not new.

  • SAM BROWNBACK:

    So nothing we're doing is new. Now it's new that we're doing it but nothing that we're doing is different than what's done before.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The race for senator and the race for governor obviously have different dynamics, but here's what they have in common. The political survival of Senator Roberts and Governor Brownback depends on their ability to define their opponents with exactly the same label.

  • PAT ROBERTS:

    He is a liberal Democrat and that's why you have Jeb Bush, and you have John McCain, you have Rand Paul. You got about everybody in the party coming – conservative, I don't say moderate – regular Republicans knowing how important this race is because they know Greg is a liberal Democrat. And we don't need any more of those folks.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    It's a label Orman is determined not to wear.

  • GREG ORMAN:

    The Kansas electorate is very complex. They're also very independent. You look at people like Ross Perot and Ross Perot significantly outperformed in Kansas.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    In fact, independent Perot got nearly 27 percent of the Kansas popular vote when he ran for president in 1992. And if you ask Paul Davis if he's campaigning with his fellow Democrats, his answer tells you everything you need to know about his strategy.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Are there any national Democrats that you would like to campaign for you in the next several weeks here in Kansas?

  • PAUL DAVIS:

    Well I'm doing something different. I'm actually campaigning with a lot of Republicans. You know governor Brownback's bringing in the likes of Rick Perry and Chris Christie and what I like to say is he's out campaigning with Republican from across the country and I'm out campaigning with Republicans from Kansas.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    As in every campaign, the outcome could hinge on the unanticipated. Just in the last week, Paul Davis has had to explain how he was caught up in a police raid at a strip club 16 years ago. And some Republicans have begun to hint that Senate candidate Orman's Wall Street ties may be as big a problem for him as they were for Mitt Romney in 2012.

    But what we're already seeing is the unanticipated on steroids: the possibility that America's reddest state might go blue this year.

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