OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Embattled Sen. Pat Roberts doesn't need voters to like him. On Wednesday, the three-term incumbent made the message he wants voters to take with them to the ballot box next month clear.
Roberts is being challenged by independent Greg Orman, and most recent polls show the three-term senator behind.
"A vote for Greg Orman is a vote to hand over the future of Kansas to [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [President Barack] Obama," Roberts said in his opening statement at the Wednesday debate.
"A vote for Pat Roberts," he said later, "is a vote for a Republican majority."
Roberts has struggled mightily in his re-election campaign. He trailed Orman by 5 points or 10 points in previous public polling , although a new CNN poll showed him up 49 percent to 48 percent. Whether that's an outlier or a sign of a rejuvenated campaign remains unclear.
The incumbent has been dogged by questions about whether he still lives in the Sunflower State. What's more, he was unprepared for the sudden competitive nature of the race and forced to completely remake his campaign team for the final two months. The senator reiterated three points during the hour-long debate before the crowd of about 300. He said he was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. He said his opponent is "a liberal Democrat." And he said Kansas could determine control of the Senate, and he was the only candidate who would guarantee a vote for Republican control. Roberts hammered that home throughout the debate, bringing every single question back to that trio of talking points. Orman has been criticized for refusing to give specifics on his positions on certain issues — most notably, which party he would caucus with if elected. (His allegiance could decide control of the Senate.) But in this debate, Roberts was the worse offender in that regard. Roberts often rambled, trailing off in his rush to get back to his point on Orman's liberal leanings. "We have to solve that one," Roberts said on Social Security. "I think we have enough time to come up with real good tax reform first. If we get the economy going, and we get the pro-job and pro-growth policies that Republicans stand for and that we will do, we will not be boxed up with regards to Harry Reid." Then he hastily switched gears. "May I just repeat that the reason that the Senate is in gridlock ... is in one person's hands: Harry Reid," he said, before launching into his attacks on Orman.Orman also took a broadside at Reid, who he has said he would not support for majority leader, saying he runs the Senate "like a dictatorship." On Social Security, Orman said he supported raising the retirement age for younger people, while leaving the system in place for people close to receiving the funds, to keep the program solvent. But he added there needed to be changes to the disability portion of the program to avoid abuse. Roberts declared he would work to repeal Obamacare. Orman declared such a statement impractical, saying it was "ignoring the reality that President [Barack] Obama is going to simply veto the bill." On immigration, Orman said he supported further securing the borders, and insisted that he did not support "amnesty," but said it was simply not "practical" to try to deport every single person living in the country illegally. He proposed several penalties like a fine and community service, and he said they should ultimately be allowed to stay if they met such requirements. "We are not going to find and send home 11.5 million people," Orman said. Roberts said stronger borders simply had to come before all else. On how they would choose whether to vote to confirm presidential nominees to executive positions, Orman said that unless a candidate raised serious "red flags," he felt a president should have the team he or she desired. Roberts said he felt any nominee needed to favor limited government and be conservative. The race is rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.