Once again, Republicans are agonizingly close (I assume it's agonizing regardless of whether you're a Republican or a Democrat) to gaining control of the Senate. The last time we were in this position was 2010, when what seemed to be a clean shot at wresting control of the chamber was the victim of a series of bizarre primary decisions by GOP voters enamored with the far-right. Sharron Angle in Nevada -- by far the most extreme candidate the party could have put forward in that swing state -- was an opponent even a badly-damaged Harry Reid could beat. Christine O'Donnell knocked off popular moderate Mike Castle in the primary, then became possibly the first Senate candidate to have to declare "I am not a witch." Ken Buck was similarly tagged as an ultra-conservative that allowed a fractured Colorado Democratic Party to hang onto Michael Bennet's seat. In 2012, the same thing happened -- Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana costs the Republican Party easily winnable Senate seats, once again allowing the Democrats to maintain their majority. The conventional post-mortem was simple: the only reason Democrats are in charge is because the GOP could not rein in its extremists.
Now it's 2014, and once again the GOP is knocking on the gates of a Senate majority. I'm not saying they won't get it this time -- indeed, polls suggest they're favored to finally burst through. But in the event they don't flip the chamber, a lot of attention will be placed on one man: Senator Pat Roberts. In a year where Republicans are competing well in quintessential purple states like Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, the idea that blood-red Kansas -- Kansas -- could once again keep them in the minority must be absolutely maddening.
Unlike the names listed above, though, Roberts is no Tea Partier. Indeed, he turned back a tea-flavored challenge from physician Milton Wolf in the primary. So, if Roberts does lose his reelection bid (and cost the GOP the Senate?), would that be demonstrative of an opposing conclusion from that drawn from 2010 and 2012 -- that it would be insufficient conservatism that would be to blame for another Republican shortfall?
I see the appeal of hte argument, but I'm not convinced. For starters, it cannot explain the similar struggles conservative hero Sam Brownback is experiencing in attempting to keep his gubernatorial seat. The real answer lies in the internal dynamics of the Kansas Republican Party. Outsiders who only know Kansas' rock-ribbed Republican tradition are often unaware of the ongoing civil war within the state party that has been raging for years now between moderates and conservatives. The fight has gotten so bitter that it is fair to say Kansas is a three-party state -- the conservative Republicans, the Democrats, and the moderate Republicans (who have often worked with the Democrats and have lined up behind Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis). Fratricide amongst Republicans is dragging their whole ticket down -- pretty much any candidate will be reviled by some important constituency.
Roberts, for his part, seems to suffer from being neither fish nor fowl. He's certainly not known as a conservative firebrand, and thus inspires no great love from the tea party set. On the other hand, in national Republican politics there really isn't much space for a Senator of the style emblematic of the rump "moderate" wing of the Kansas GOP. So Roberts lacks a strong base of support in any part of his base -- a problem no doubt compounded by his having essentially abandoned Kansas (he gaffed that he returns to the state "every time I get an opponent").
In any event, this will all be moot if either (a) Roberts wins or (b) the GOP seizes control of the Senate in spite of his defeat. But I wanted to go on the record in advance, because good political commentary doesn't erly on 20-20 hindsight.