WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts won a big tea party endorsement Tuesday from a group that had backed his primary challenger, providing a boost for the three-term Republican on a day his embattled campaign also got a visit from Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
As the unexpectedly competitive race entered its final week, the endorsement from the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund signaled some conservatives once determined to oust the 78-year-old senator may now be accepting him as a more palatable option than independent Greg Orman, a political unknown.
The group previously endorsed Roberts' GOP challenger, Milton Wolf, and called the incumbent "a desperate career politician."
Paul told a crowd of about 200 people at a Wichita airport hangar that Orman could help Democrats. Numerous Republican dignitaries, including several on past presidential tickets, have made the same argument on Roberts' behalf.
"How could you even consider voting for someone who would support President Obama's agenda or (Democratic Majority Leader) Harry Reid?" said Paul, who has strong tea party support and is weighing a presidential run. "You have to come together. We've been counting on you, Kansas. You're a Republican state, for goodness sakes!"
Tea Party Patriots are among the biggest national tea party groups, though there are hundreds throughout the country that operate locally. Larger conservative groups such as Tea Party Express, which also backed Wolf but switched to Roberts this month, have sought to influence congressional primaries this year with little success.
The GOP needs six seats to gain control of the Senate, and was not expecting to defend Roberts' in typically GOP-heavy Kansas. Orman, a 45-year-old who briefly sought the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in 2008, describes himself as "fiscally conservative and socially tolerant," but has declined to say with which party he will affiliate, if elected.
Orman kept a relatively low profile Tuesday, spending much of the day in private, small-group events.
"No matter how many national politicians Senator Roberts brings to Kansas, Kansans know that Washington is broken and Senator Roberts is part of the problem there," Orman campaign manager Jim Jonas said in a written statement.
To underscore Kansas' unfamiliar role as a swing state, Paul recalled last visiting Kansas with his family in 1976, when the Republican National Convention held was held in Kansas City, Missouri, and his family spent time in nearby Overland Park, Kansas.
Since surviving the primary, Roberts has aggressively attacked Orman as being a political conman, presenting himself as independent but having voted for and contributed to Democrats in the past. Orman has also contributed to Republicans.
Roberts said the tea party endorsement was a welcome development.
"They're the fire in the belly," Roberts said, describing it as an indication that "we've got the whole party" supporting his candidacy.
Roughly a quarter of voters who describe themselves as conservative or very conservative have an unfavorable opinion of Roberts according to an NBC News/Marist Poll, which surveyed 757 likely Kansas voters.
Wolf and his backers accused Roberts of losing touch with Kansas, challenged his state residency and pointed to votes, such as to increase the debt limit, they called typical of Washington insiders.
The Aug. 5 primary left behind a fractured conservative Kansas base that Roberts' overhauled campaign team had not yet fully repaired.
"I have several reservations -- for his lack of legitimacy," said John Barney, a tea party organizer from Parson, Kansas, who voted for Wolf and called Roberts, "a typical politician."
Greg Ward of the Lawrence-area Kansas Sovereign Coalition said a vote for Roberts is a vote for a Republican Senate majority.
"We've got to remove Harry Reid and the only way to do that is to support Pat Roberts," Ward said, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader from Nevada. "I think most people in the grassroots movement get that."
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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