Kansas debate: Did Roberts stick 'liberal Democrat' label on independent Orman?

In the Wednesday debate, embattled Sen. Pat Roberts tried to paint his opponent, Greg Orman, as a Democrat in disguise. For his part, Orman, an independent, had a blunt message: The problem in Washington is both political parties.

Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital Journal/AP
Independent senate candidate Greg Orman, left, answers a question as Sen. Pat Roberts takes notes during their second debate on Wednesday at the KSN studios in Wichita, Kan.

In a number of hot Senate races, Republicans are casting the election as a referendum on President Obama. In Kansas, the question is whether that strategy can succeed against a political independent.

In a televised debate Wednesday night, Sen. Pat Roberts (R) repeatedly characterized his opponent as “a liberal Democrat” and said Kansas needs to vote Republican to upend “the Obama-Reid agenda” – a reference to Senate majority leader Harry Reid

Kansas is one of the nation’s pivotal races as Republicans seek a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate.

Senator Roberts described Greg Orman – who is running as an independent – as a rich office-seeker who has donated money to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, has a “friend, Harry Reid,” and is raising money from the likes of liberal financier George Soros and the AFL-CIO.

The election could come down to whether that liberal label sticks, or whether voters view Orman as a kind of swashbuckling iconoclast – someone who will be conservative enough for Kansas while also breaking free of the status-quo partisanship that besets Washington.

In the Wednesday debate, Orman came out of the gate with a blunt message that you don’t generally hear from leading candidates for office: That the problem in Washington isn’t the other candidate’s party, but both political parties. 

He called Roberts just “half right” for blaming President Obama and Senator Reid.

Orman’s closing statement was an eloquent appeal for fresh blood in Congress to bridge partisan divides and “get back in the business of solving problems.”

“Is Washington working?” Orman asked his audience. “If you think that it is, I’m not your guy.”

So far, Orman’s message is appealing enough to make it a close race. It hasn’t helped Roberts that many Kansans think the senator is more attached to Washington than to his home state. 

An average of five recent polls, tracked by the website RealClearPolitics, shows the two candidates precisely tied among likely voters, with about three weeks of campaigning to go.   

In the debate, Roberts criticized Orman on issues ranging from farm policy to immigration.

Roberts said Orman is “for amnesty” toward illegal immigrants. Orman rebuffed that tag, saying his approach – conferring legal status on immigrants only once they do things like pay a fine – is consistent with what some Senate Republicans have supported.

Roberts touted his own strong backing from the National Rifle Association. Orman replied that support for the Second Amendment can coexist with background checks for gun buyers.

When Orman said it’s time for the nation to move on from debating abortion rights, Roberts called it “unconscionable” to argue that it’s time to “get past the rights of the unborn.”

Roberts seemed to have a tougher time pinning the liberal label on Orman on the fiscal front.

When food stamps came up, Orman said that if social-welfare programs are prompting complacency or dependency, they need to be fixed or ended. That view sounded more like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – a leading House Republican – than like Obama.

Orman joined Roberts in lamenting the heavy hand of federal regulation on the economy. Orman said rules should come up for review every 10 years to make sure the government is “not stifling innovation.”

Orman also recounted how in 2010 he donated money to Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown of Massachusetts, specifically because he thought Mr. Brown could block Obamacare, a measure “expanding a broken system” of health care.  

As Roberts criticized Orman for fundraising with liberal donors, Orman cited his own support for action designed to reduce the influence of outside money on politics.

Specifically, Orman backs the idea of a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Courts 2010 “Citizens United” decision – a ruling seen as opening new floodgates for corporate influence on politics. Roberts implied that Orman’s approach would undercut First Amendment free speech rights.

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