This heartland battle may tip control of the Senate

Is Kansas the key?

WICHITA, Kan.—When it comes to politics, many American business executives hold two different impulses.

They want Washington to act conservatively. But they also simply want Washington to act.

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate may hinge on a test here in Kansas of which of those impulses is stronger.

Kansas is as consistently Republican as any state in the nation. The GOP has won the last 10 presidential elections here. Kansans last sent a non-Republican to the Senate in 1932.

Independent Kansas Senate candidate Greg Orman
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Yet third-term Republican incumbent Pat Roberts finds himself unexpectedly in deep trouble against business executive Greg Orman, who is running as an independent. Orman took the lead in the polls after the Democratic Party candidate dropped out of the race.

Their debate before a business audience in suburban Overland Park underscored the two warring impulses.

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Roberts cast himself as the natural fit for conservative Kansans on a range of important issues—tax reform, business regulation, immigration policy. He disparaged Orman, who once ran for the Senate as a Democrat and has given money to President Barack Obama, as a liberal pretending to be something else. Orman hasn't said whether he'd side with Republicans or Democrats in deciding who leads the Senate, but both parties expect it would be the latter.

Orman emphasized the other impulse: Disgust with Washington for failing to get anything done at all. He blamed the blue team led by Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, but also the red team led by top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell. He promised a pragmatic problem-solving style to break through Washington gridlock and give business leaders "certainty."

Questioned about how to secure funding for transportation projects vital for growth, Orman certainly sounded as political as his opponents. Roberts backed "certainty" on funding but opposed any increase in gas taxes, Orman said projects could be financed with unspecified cuts in other programs

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn't find Orman's private sector pedigree and rhetoric convincing. Officials recently vowed to be "all-in" for Roberts in the campaign homestretch. But the Chamber can only offer money, not votes.

Is dislike for Washington as a whole, and yearning for action of any kind, stronger than bedrock heartland conservatism? Kansans will answer, and perhaps tip control of the Senate, on Nov. 4.