TOPEKA Democrats' hopes for upsetting three-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts rest on challenger Chad Taylor's belief that he can escape President Barack Obama's shadow, even in GOP-leaning Kansas.
The 40-year-old Shawnee County district attorney's low-budget campaign is trying to tap into frustration with Washington and sentiments against incumbents. Roberts, 78, began his political career as a congressional aide in the late 1960s and faced questions during the tough GOP primary about owning a Washington-area home while listing rented space in the Dodge City home of two supporters as his official residence.
But Roberts and other Kansas Republicans have prospered by making President Barack Obama their political foil; Obama received only 38 percent of the vote in Kansas in 2012. Roberts touts himself as the one candidate who'll consistently fight Obama's agenda and often attacks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"People need to be prepared for the television ads and the mailers that will come with pictures of me and Barack Obama and Harry Reid, and those are two people that I've never met or been in the same room with," Taylor said during an interview.
Like some Republicans, Taylor criticizes Congress for not passing a full budget since 2009. And like some in his own party, he argues that the federal health care overhaul championed by Obama provided tangible and popular benefits, such as allowing parents to keep young-adult children on their health insurance. But he adds that the law needs to be revised.
"I think people right now are sick and tired of the gridlock," he said. "They're tired of it with both parties."
Taylor's bid to unseat Roberts is complicated by independent candidate Greg Orman, of Olathe, a 44-year-old co-founder of a business capital and management services firm. Orman expects to grab votes from centrists in both parties and unaffiliated voters.
Taylor acknowledged Orman will pick up support from Republican-leaning voters who are unhappy with Roberts but can't stomach voting for a Democrat. Still, he argued he'll win by attracting GOP moderates and unaffiliated voters who are "persuadable."
Orman's supporters see his business background as crucial, and his campaign argues that he is Roberts' main rival. He raised about $667,000 in contributions from late May through Aug. 1, according to finance reports. Taylor has raised less than $163,000 since November. Orman has broadcast television commercials; Taylor has not.
"It certainly is easier for any independent to say he's not for helping the Republicans or for helping the Democrats; he's for helping Kansans. The Democrat is not going to be able to make that argument," Orman campaign manager Jim Jonas said.
Roberts' executive campaign manager Leroy Towns said the key issue is "who can stand up to the liberal Democratic operation in Washington." Republicans are trying to capture a Senate majority and have seen Kansas as a safe state because the GOP has won every Senate race since 1932.
"The makeup of the Senate is very important this year, and voters, I think, understand that," Towns said. "We've got two more years of an Obama presidency, and the question is whether Kansas will send him a friend."
Taylor was elected district attorney in 2008 and re-elected without opposition four years later. He acknowledged he's still introducing himself to voters outside the Topeka area, and choosing to make one-on-one contacts with voters over broadcast advertising. He dismissed questions about fundraising by noting that no candidate could have hoped to match Roberts, anyway. The senator, with his hotly contested primary, raised nearly $3.5 million from January 2013 through Aug. 1.
"If you think about it — what's going to hold more weight with somebody? Having a discussion with a friend or a colleague that they respect, or seeing someone on TV tearing down the people that they're running against?" Taylor said.