Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, one of the least worthy placeholders in minority leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican caucus, suddenly came alive during a September debate over whether to amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics. Roberts, whose forty-seven years as a congressional aide, House member and senator have been spent almost entirely in the shadows, stepped into the limelight as the most ardent defender of the theory that multinational corporations and rich people should, simply by virtue of their wealth, be allowed to have more influence over elections than working people, small farmers and small-business owners.
That’s an outrageously out-of-touch stance. But it would not have earned Roberts much attention except for the fact that he has unexpectedly become one of the most vulnerable incumbents in a volatile election year. The 55-45 Democratic advantage in the Senate is likely to shrink, perhaps to a point where control could flip. But with the fight coming down to a handful of contests, the defeat of even a single supposedly safe Republican could upset McConnell’s dream of taking over the chamber.
Roberts should have been the safest of the safe Republicans. Rarely has he faced serious competition in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1930. But this year, he’s had it rough: Roberts won just 48 percent of the Republican primary vote, and now, after the withdrawal of the Democratic nominee this fall, the polls have him locked in a tight race with independent challenger Greg Orman.
Orman is a relative centrist who rips both parties. Like Maine’s independent senator, Angus King, the Kansan is keeping his options open regarding which party caucus he’ll join if he wins, though Orman is now attracting substantial interest and support from Democrats. Although Orman is fiscally conservative, he is also pro-choice, believes in climate change and supports background checks for gun buyers. All of those stances distinguish him from the incumbent—but where the independent candidate really stands out is on the issue of money in politics, where he sounds like the most enthusiastic Democratic reformers. Echoing the campaign themes of a number of this year’s most interesting Senate contenders, Orman unequivocally backs a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and allow for the restoration of reasonable limits on campaign donations and spending.
Roberts’s determined defense of what old-time Kansas populists referred to as a “government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street” has played into his challenger’s hands. Roberts has gone over the top by objecting even to rules under which government contractors and financial institutions that received federal bailout funds would be “prohibited from making independent expenditures,” vowing: “I will oppose this amendment today, tomorrow and forever.”
No surprise there. Over the past three decades, Roberts has secured his spot on Capitol Hill not with a record of accomplishment but with more than $16 million in contributions, largely from corporate political-action committees and wealthy individuals. His top contributors are PACs and individual donors associated with Koch Industries, the Wichita-based conglomerate owned by billionaires Charles and David Koch.