Topeka — In his bid to upset U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Democrat Jim Slattery is promising Kansans the kind of competitive Senate race they haven't seen in more than three decades.
"This is going to be a great year for change," Slattery said last week as he filed to run.
A former six-term congressman from Topeka, who left the state after a failed bid for governor in 1994, Slattery returns to a political scene in Kansas that has improved for Democrats but remains a Republican Party stronghold.
No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in Kansas since 1932, and Roberts has spent more than 40 years in Washington, first as a congressional aide, then a U.S. House member from 1980 to 1996, and since then a senator. He has routinely won re-election by wide margins.
But Kansas State University political science professor Joe Aistrup says Slattery may have a chance. Slattery faces a lesser-known candidate, Lee Jones, of Overland Park, in the Democratic Party primary in August.
"He (Slattery) is a quality challenger because of his experience in Congress, and the fact that he's run a statewide campaign," Aistrup said.
Slattery, however, is unknown to many voters, Aistrup said. After losing to Bill Graves in the 1994 race for governor, Slattery went to work for the Washington law and lobbying firm of Wiley Rein.
Roberts and the Kansas Republican Party have focused on Slattery's time outside Kansas. The day Slattery announced for office, Roberts released a radio ad that hammered Slattery for being a lobbyist "Gucci loafers and all" and forgetting about Kansas issues.
Aistrup said that was a sound strategy for Roberts.
"I anticipate that Roberts will pursue that as long as it works. It's up to Slattery to develop an effective response to that and turn the spotlight back on Roberts," he said.
Slattery says he's proud of the work he did for Wiley Rein. He recently released a list of his clients, which included companies and groups involved in trade disputes.
"I'm happy to take responsibility for the work I've done outside of government. It's time Pat Roberts takes responsibility for his votes the last six years that have brought us record gas prices, a slumping economy, and an unnecessary war," he said.
Slattery has blasted Roberts' allegiance with President Bush on the war in Iraq, especially Roberts' tenure as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during a period when intelligence that led up to the war was found to be wrong or greatly exaggerated.
"It's just incredible that in 2003 we went into this war based on inaccurate intelligence information and based on assumptions that just defy Kansas common sense," Slattery said.
The charges of intelligence incompetence got another round of airing last week when the now Democratic-controlled Intelligence Committee released a report that stated Bush and other top administration officials frequently made unsubstantiated assertions about Iraq's ties to al-Qaida.
Slattery said Roberts was partly to blame.
"Ultimately, Chairman Roberts and the Senate Intelligence Committee failed in their oversight responsibility, both going into the war and in getting to the bottom of what happened in a timely manner."
But Roberts criticized the report and defended his chairmanship of the committee.
The report, he said, "has done nothing to improve our intelligence capabilities, nor has it produced any reforms that may prevent intelligence failures in the future."
While he was chairman, Roberts said, he helped lead bi-partisan efforts to reform the intelligence community.
Aistrup said it's difficult to determine how voters in Kansas will react to Roberts' performance as the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
"The question is whether or not the activities of the Intelligence Committee can be framed in an easy way for voters to understand. That will be Slattery's job," he said.
Economy and gas prices
But Slattery says there are other issues that make Roberts vulnerable, such as the economy and gas prices.
A Rasmussen poll in May showed Roberts ahead 52 percent to 40 percent, which Slattery interpreted as good news for him this early in the campaign.
Aistrup said for Slattery to win, he must win in Johnson County, and by large majorities in Douglas and Wyandotte counties. He must stay close in Sedgwick County and "do well" in the midsize counties.
Then Kansans may see the kind of race they saw in 1974 when Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and Democrat Bill Roy went after it. Dole won that election by only a few thousand votes in a race that is described by many as a watershed moment in Kansas politics.