Can Sarah Palin save Pat Roberts in tight Kansas Senate race?

Sarah Palin appears in Kansas Thursday to stump for Sen. Pat Roberts, the most endangered Republican senator. She could be helpful, but there's irony in her pitch.

Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle/AP
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) shakes hands with supporters as she joins US Sen. Pat Roberts for a pancake breakfast at the Independence Historical Museum and Art Center on Thursday, in Independence, Kansas. Roberts is locked in a close race with independent challenger Gregg Orman.

Sarah Palin has come to the rescue. The Republicans’ 2008 vice presidential nominee – and big-time political lightning rod – took the stage Thursday in Kansas on behalf of the state’s endangered Republican senator, Pat Roberts.

Three-term Senator Roberts is widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican senator in the November midterms. A loss would seriously harm the Republicans’ chances of retaking the Senate.

Enter Ms. Palin. The former Alaska governor’s public favorability has declined since she shot to fame six years ago – but no matter. Among all the big-name Republicans rushing to Kansas to save Roberts, she like no other can reach the very voters who need to rally to Roberts’s side: tea party conservatives.  

“The primary badly damaged Roberts,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Palin actually may have the most important job of all the surrogates.”

That point is hugely ironic. Palin didn’t endorse Roberts’s tea party primary challenger, physician Milton Wolf, but she has backed plenty of other tea partyers in other races. (Dr. Wolf came within 7 percentage points of beating Roberts in the primary.) Now, in Kansas, Palin is going to bat for the GOP establishment guy. A good part of her willingness to campaign for someone who isn’t her ideological mate may have to do with her own desire to buff her brand. And when the alternative – a Roberts loss – could keep the Senate in Democratic hands, Roberts is suddenly just fine, thank you.

Kansas became the most unusual Senate race this cycle on Sept. 3, when the Democratic nominee, Chad Taylor, dropped out (at the urging of his own party). Independent candidate Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman, had proved a more viable opponent, both in message and in fundraising, and the Democrats wanted to go head-to-head against the incumbent. Roberts had been running a lackluster reelection effort, including a bumbling admission that he doesn’t own a home in Kansas. The GOP has sent in top strategists to save Roberts.  

The GOP has also dispatched, or is sending, to Kansas former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Veteran home-state former Sen. Bob Dole (R) is also doing his part, urging fellow Kansans to return his friend Roberts to Washington.

Kansas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the US Senate since 1932. Democrats are wooing Orman to caucus with them if he wins.

So how effective is a Palin endorsement? The Washington Post examined that question last March.

Palin was a big draw in the 2010 midterms.

“As the tea party rose to power ahead of the 2010 GOP wave election, Palin reached peak levels of popularity, and her endorsement was in high demand,” reporter Sean Sullivan writes. “She played a big role that year, endorsing 64 candidates, a Washington Post analysis showed. Her record was mixed; her candidates won 33 races. But it's also worth noting that she backed some real underdogs.”

Aides to now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas say that Palin helped him win in 2012. Perhaps the biggest underdog Palin is credited with helping is now-Sen. Deb Fischer (R) of Nebraska. She was mired in a three-way primary battle, and after Palin endorsed her, her numbers took off.

But Senator Fischer, a rancher who had been active in state politics, cuts a somewhat more Palinesque figure than Roberts, who has been a Washington fixture for 40 years.

Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, questions how effective Palin can be, as “someone whose last publicity is getting in a brawl at a party in Alaska.”

But on the larger question of the surrogate strategy, Mr. Loomis sees no other choice.

“This is a DC-based campaign that’s come in to rescue him,” he says. “They look at the voting numbers and say, we’re not going to win this in the middle, we’re going to win this on the Republican side of the electorate.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report. 

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