Righteous rage, impotent fury: Thomas Frank returns to Kansas to hunt the last days of Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts

On eve of a possible GOP rout, Frank goes home to rediscover the matter with Kansas and all American politics

Published November 2, 2014 12:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Riedel)
(AP/Charlie Riedel)

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KANSAS -- One of the treasured vanities of my home state of Kansas is the idea that, although we are the nation’s laggards and late-comers in so many ways, there are other departments in which we are way ahead of everyone else, savoring the fast-food treats you will one day savor and debating the issues that you, too, will agonize over before too long. It’s an understandable fantasy for a people who are constantly reminded by the culture at large how lame and uncool they are, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t coming true, for once, in 2014. This week, Kansas may well be the one state that bucks all the national political trends.

Here you have several prominent conservatives, Republicans in one of the most Republican states in the country, running in a year that looks to be a Republican sweep nationwide, and these Kansas Republicans are either behind in the polls or barely keeping pace with their Democratic opponents.

The men in question are:

* Governor Sam Brownback, once a national leader of the GOP’s culture-war wing who came to Topeka in 2010 and immediately used deep tax cuts to blast an enormous hole in the state budget. The consequences, which I have described in this space before, are almost impossible to calculate—essentially, it’s austerity for the common folk so that the state’s ruling class can take home even more. In the face of the inevitable surge of public outrage, Brownback and his Super PAC friends are currently running TV commercials around the clock. The strategy seems to be to rescue the party’s most sanctimonious moral crusader by drowning his opponent in a triple wave of slime, trashing the Democrat for (a) wanting to raise taxes, (b) going to a strip club in the 1990s (and, the commercials imply, voting perversely to allow strip clubs to sprout next door to churches), and (c) fraternizing with a judge who changed the sentences of some notorious local murderers from death to life without parole.

* Senator Pat Roberts, a dutiful Republican soldier who got promoted when it was his turn to get promoted and who has spent decades in Congress but accomplished surprisingly little. (His one legislative achievement, the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, was a disaster for family farmers.) It has been a comfortable arrangement, no doubt, but Roberts settled in just a little too cozily. Like many other Midwestern politicians before him, he seems to have decided he liked life in Washington better than in his home town, and by 2014 he was seen only rarely within the boring, rectilinear confines of the state he represents. His official residence, if you want to call it that, is a campaign donor’s house in Dodge City. Making jokes about this, as Roberts used to do, drew down on him the ire of the local tea party, and a right-wing challenger nearly beat him in the Republican primary in August. Now an independent candidate, Greg Orman, has assumed the anti-Washington mantle, and Pat Roberts’ carefree days in the U.S. Senate may at last be nearing their end.

While these fixtures of the Kansas political scene prepare to make their last stand, there has been, hovering like a comet or some other astronomical wonder, the spectacle of the Kansas City Royals, an ordinarily undistinguished baseball team that nevertheless beat all comers this year right up to Game Seven of the World Series—which they lost to the San Francisco Giants by one run. Every politician in the region has naturally sought to cloak themselves in the Royals’ glory, but what the team’s epic run actually portends for our political future remains obscure. Maybe it signifies that, with pluck and determination, the local Democrats can pull off a historic upset. Maybe it is the ninth inning of Game Seven for the Kansas GOP.


Of the various Kansas races, it is the Pat Roberts–Greg Orman Senate matchup that has captured the attention of poll-parsers and odds-makers from coast to coast, because it presents them with an alluring double uncertainty: Not only is the race itself too close to call, but if the independent Greg Orman wins, we don’t know which party he will line up with. In fact, we know remarkably little about Orman’s politics generally, because he didn’t come up by conventional partisan means; he moved sideways into public life after a successful career running a private equity firm. Over the years he has had dalliances with both R’s and D’s, and today he presents himself as an anti-politician, assailing (as he put it in a TV debate a few weeks ago) “partisans of both parties” who refuse to “roll up your sleeves [and] start solving problems.”

As races come down to the wire all over the country, it seems ever more possible that the fate of the Senate lies in the hands of this one unknown figure, who could conceivably deliver control of that august body to either side. The possibilities have beguiled the science-minded men of the consensus, who for weeks have speculated back and forth on this or that possible scenario, with the enigmatic Orman always hovering over the outcome.

Which makes what I saw last Wednesday particularly strange. Determined to find Greg Orman, this mystery man of American politics and learn what I could about him, I drove to his campaign office, in a strip mall on the outermost fringes of the Kansas City metro area. There was a single person present amid the signs and buttons and campaign detritus when I walked in, and she kindly informed me that the candidate was appearing that day at a farm near Lawrence, Kansas, where he would be announcing his agriculture policy.

That sounded good to me; I was on my way.

I eventually found the place: a picturesque homestead with a 19th-century house, a few gnarly cottonwoods, a perfect red barn, and a sweeping view across the Kaw River valley to the buildings of the University of Kansas in the distance. Two photographers and 20 or so ordinary citizens were milling about; then the candidate himself arrived. To my astonishment, every other person besides me and the photographers proceeded to arrange themselves in formation behind Orman, many of them holding Orman for Senate signs. Standing before this human backdrop, the candidate spoke about the problems facing rural Kansas to an audience consisting of, well, me.

Yes, reader, aside from the camera guys I was the only member of the news media who had bothered to come and hear the candidate’s plans for wind energy and broadband on the prairie. I am sorry to say that I found this situation so completely disconcerting that when Orman called for questions from the media, meaning, uh, me, I was positively tongue-tied. I thought of all those guys back in D.C. figuring the odds and parsing the polls and . . . I’m the only one here to listen to what he actually has to say? This didn’t make any sense.

Eventually, I am happy to report, my brain rebooted and Orman and I had a good conversation.

I asked him about the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute elite bankers. “Obviously, for there to be justice in this world, it has to be applied even-handedly,” he said. “So I think those sorts of things obviously can’t go on.”

I told him I admired his stance on the abortion issue, the way he was so forthrightly pro-choice in his debate with Pat Roberts. Not many politicians in Kansas, I said, are willing to take a stand like that anymore. “We’ve tried from the beginning to be authentic,” he replied. “We’ve tried to answer any question that a Kansas voter has of us.”

I asked him about what I believe is Farm Issue No. 1: monopoly—the domination of farming by a handful of agribusiness middlemen. “Farmers are obviously in the middle of a cost-price squeeze right now,” Orman replied. “Part of it’s because, on the other side of it, they have very few choices,” referring, presumably, to the extremely small number of buyers a farmer can sell to. I remarked on how easy it would be for the government to do something about this situation. His response: “It’s amazing what we would be able to do [in Washington] if we had people there representing Americans instead of representing special interests.”

I went on to marvel at the amazing show of solidarity those special interests were currently making around their old friend Pat Roberts, and the irony of the wealthy Orman being class-baited by such a pawn of business interests.

Now, I have always been leery of politicians who talk about partisanship as though that is the main problem the country faces; the post-partisan siren song has lured my ideological kin to their doom again and again. (Cf., Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama.) I am also suspicious of the heroic job-creator persona, which Orman has donned to great effect in this campaign. Despite it all, however, it is working. The outrage he has harnessed is real—real enough to elect an almost complete unknown to the United States Senate on Tuesday.


For a certain species of Republican, Kansas has long functioned the way the “rotten boroughs” of 18th-century England worked for the people who owned them. The GOP here sends to Congress whoever they choose to send, no questions asked. They don’t even have to live here, really, just as long as there’s that “R” after the candidate’s name.

The machine is breaking down this year, and it’s not a pretty sight. Faced with a challenger he can’t seem to slime down, longtime Senator Pat Roberts has grown desperate. After all these years representing the rotten borough, he finds that he has precious little to offer and few achievements to boast about. Instead he lashes out in all directions. He assails his opponent for being rich. He warns about the horrific threat posed by Barack Obama. He urges upon us pure, naked panic. When asked about Central American refugee children in a recent debate with Orman he actually said this: “We have ISIS. We have Ebola. We have to secure the border.”

But all is not lost. Roberts has been able to call in an unlimited amount of Republican supporting fire, parading all manner of right-wing superstars through the state: Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, all of them here to tell us how highly they think of their dear buddy Pat and maybe rescue Republican dreams to control the Senate.

On Friday, it was New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s turn—his third tour of duty for Roberts—and I got to gape at the Roberts caravan when it pulled up, speakers blaring Kid Rock, into a vast and vacant field outside a NASCAR racetrack in Kansas City, Kansas.

The side of Roberts’s bus was painted with the hopeful but increasingly improbable slogan, “Kansas Republican Party CLEAN SWEEP,” plus images of the wholesome, smiling faces of all the local Republican candidates for office.

This time the media was present, with video cameras and laminated ID badges, their numbers bolstered by Republican operatives and office-seekers of all sorts. Even so, there were barely 100 people present—probably because it was windy and bitter cold.

The people from the bus brought out a podium, a comfy-looking armchair, and—after a few minutes—the beloved 91-year-old Republican soldier Bob Dole, who occupied the chair while the others descended. Reader, it was a Republican cornucopia. In addition to Dole and Roberts was the entire state ticket: Governor Sam Brownback, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the local member of Congress, the attorney general, and the state’s lieutenant governor, who clutched a broom throughout the proceedings. There was “special guest” Chris Christie, wearing a jacket that read, “Jersey Fresh.” There was governor Mike Pence of Indiana. Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee. Superlobbyist and former governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour.

Pat Roberts himself had surprisingly little to say. He was clearly obliged by the rules of this peculiar Republican game to play the damsel in distress, showing nothing but gratitude to his rescuers. When he spoke, we heard a touch of the old humor, or maybe just resignation: “Bob and I are going to Florida on Wednesday.” We heard a certain humility, too: “If you want to be a big flea, you have to run with tall dogs,” he said, referencing his relationship to the assembled Republican grandees. Only once did the beleaguered Senator work himself up and try to convince the audience that “I’m going to win this race!”

Each of the prominent visiting Republicans then stepped up to the microphone and delivered their endorsement or related some trademarked political profundity. The only one with any sort of electricity was Sam Brownback, the maximum leader of the Kansas conservative revolution, who spoke with passion and a slight Jimmy Stewart twang. To Brownback’s credit, he did not retreat in the slightest from the disaster he has inflicted on the state. Even though there is a good chance that he will lose on Tuesday, he was still depicting the election as a showdown between world-historical opposites: “The Kansas way versus the Obama way, that’s what we’re portraying here,” he said. “The Kansas way is lower taxes, stronger families, getting the government off of your business.” Then there’s the other side, the scary stuff: “The Obama way is higher taxes, more government on your back, more regulation, and really stifling the American dream. We don’t want that.”

Brownback delivered his lines with energy, but listening to them I was struck by the extreme staleness—the utter obsolescence—of this kind of thinking. It hasn’t changed since the 1970s, when Bob Dole was a fresh face in the United States Senate, even as the world around it has crashed and burned. In order to believe this kind of talk you must have had your eyes closed for most of the last decade, while the almost completely unregulated mortgage-origination industry wrote loans however they felt like and sold them however they thought would best move the units. A little government on that business’s back, a little stifling of those banksters’ dreams, would have saved the world a hell of a lot of trouble.

While I mulled that over, Roberts disappeared from the rally and Chris Christie fielded the usual horse-race questions. Sam Brownback, erstwhile champion of the magisterium of the religious right, shook my hand on his way to the bus door. We had a brief conversation about his TV commercial blaming liberal judges for letting notorious murderers “off the hook.”

Governor Sam Brownback: “The Tom Franks?”

TF: “That’s me. But no ‘s’ in Frank.”

SB: “OK, OK.”

TF: “I saw your TV commercial about the Carr brothers. There’s a lot of people who followed you for your stance on cultural issues, and I wonder how a pro-lifer can be in favor of the death penalty.”

SB: “What that ad’s about is about judges, and the judge’s role. That’s what that ad’s about.”

TF: “It implied pretty strongly that you would have executed these guys.”

BB: “That ad is about judges. ’Cause what we talked about is the judges you appoint. Which, that’s the governor’s role, is how, what you appoint. And I’ve appointed a prosecutor to the Supreme Court, and he’s [meaning his Democratic opponent] supported liberal judges, and one of the judges, at their home, had a fundraiser. So, that’s what we were pointing out in that ad.”

Brownback disappeared inside the bus.


The Pat Roberts I saw last week looked like a hollow, defeated man . . . who may yet prevail on Tuesday. The logic of the rotten borough may well assert itself one more time, as Kansans march to the polls and dutifully pull the lever the same way they always have. In fact, in what will no doubt be hailed a great Republican wave election, it is possible to discern a whole host of rotten boroughs all across America, places where the media doesn’t really care about a candidate’s proposals or the glaring contradictions in their highly moral views—where billionaire TV commercials and sheer terror carry all before them. We will elect a whole platoon of empty, defeated men to the Senate on Tuesday, and then, two years from now, we will search out another company of hollow heroes to champion our righteous rage—and do it again and again, slowly sinking into our impotent fury.

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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