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By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — On the eve of an election that could end his 33-year career in Congress, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts stood Monday in a tight Republican Party office, the head shots of GOP heroes staring at him, and offered up what could only be called an incumbent’s lament.

On the campaign trail, senators are punching bags. Voters have lost faith in their government. His opponent doesn’t even understand the institution he wants to join. In short: It’s rough out here.

“It’s been a tough year for any incumbent,” Roberts said, looking up at walls filled with portraits of George H.W. Bush, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bob Dole.

That the Kansas conservative was the one delivering the monologue was a bit of a twist. This year, it’s largely Democratic incumbents bracing for a bruising election day on Tuesday — thanks to a tough lineup of red state races, President Barack Obama’s deflated approval rating and months of unsettling news from home and abroad.

But perhaps because of his anomaly status Roberts feels the pressure all the more. Deep in a ruby red state, with conservative credentials and decades of service, even Roberts is on the ropes. Even he was having to explain his role in a divided government. Even he has had to distance himself from Obama’s agenda, he said.

“I think the president, quite frankly, has moved so far left and has made people so frustrated and upset that if you’ve even been within the city limits of Washington — the federal limits of Washington — you’ve got a real challenge on your hands to explain to people that you’ve been opposed to the Obama agenda all along,” Roberts said. “People are so frustrated and angry that they’ve lost faith in their government.”

Roberts’ trouble comes from more than just proximity to the city limits of Washington. It has also been a result of how infrequently he’s been in the city limits of his hometown of Dodge City. The senator has taken heat for allegedly taking up residence in northern Virginia and spending too little time in his home state. He didn’t help his cause when, to defend himself, he explained: “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, a chance — I come home to Kansas.”

Roberts has had other trouble — including a tea party-aligned primary challenge and a Democrat who withdrew at last minute, leaving him in a one-on-one faceoff with wealthy businessman and independent Greg Orman.

Orman has played coy about his partisan sympathies and has not said whom he would support for Senate majority leader. He suggested his allegiances may change from issue to issue, a notion that really riled Roberts, a dedicated party loyalist, on Monday.

It’s “Jim Jeffords on steroids,” he said, referencing the Vermont Republican-turned-independent whose party switching gave Democrats control of the Senate.

“This whole thing that he would be an independent and he would just go look for good ideas, or people who had good ideas. And maybe he’d get with them and they could fix things,” Roberts said. “That just is not how the Senate works. It may well be how a lot of people think it should work but that’s not the case.”

Roberts took umbrage at other notions coming from his opponent’s campaign. Orman had dismissed a group of touring Republicans stumping for Roberts this weekend as “a Washington establishment clown car.” Former Sen. Bob Dole was among them. “You don’t call Bob Dole a clown,” Roberts declared. The Orman campaign says the candidate wrote an email to Dole explaining he did not intend to call Dole a clown.

Orman once invested in a shrimp farm in the Nevada desert, Orman noted, adding that such an enterprise was not a “mainstream” Kansas business.

In the end, the senator says he believes Kansas voters were coming around to his view of the race. They were becoming more skeptical of Orman, he suggested, and coming home to the familiar.

As he looked out at volunteers crowded into the small office, he whittled his pitch down to just a few words.

“You know me,” he said. “You know Pat Roberts.”

Photo via Wikimedia

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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