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Kansas Contest Becomes Battleground in Fight for Senate Control

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The Kansas Senate race should be an afterthought in this year’s midterm election. But it’s become an unexpected focal point in the Republican Party’s bid to regain control of the U.S. Senate – and an outlet for voters to register their frustration with partisan gridlock in Washington, DC.

That's why Kansas is one of the states NBC News will visit as part of our Meet the Voters bus tour.

The reliably red state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s. But Senator Pat Roberts, who was elected to the Senate in 1996 and served in the House since 1981, has struggled this campaign.

While Roberts was able to narrowly overcome a primary challenge by tea party supported candidate Milton Wolf, his general election is proving even more challenging. After Democratic candidate Chad Taylor surprisingly dropped out of the race in early September, Roberts was left in a much more difficult position – facing off with entrepreneur and self-financed Independent Greg Orman. And the political upstart has pushed the race into a dead heat with his anti-Washington message.

Orman has honed that message in campaign ads he used to introduce himself to voters as an independent above party politics.

“Washington’s stuck between two parties who care more about winning than they care about our country. We can get back on track if we can find common ground,” Orman says in a campaign ad called “Stuck.”

Orman has also sought to paint Roberts as a “bitter partisan” who helped create the stalemate in Washington and is out of touch with Kansans.

For his part, Roberts has tried to convince voters that his opponent is anything but a true Independent, pointing to past political donations Orman has made to Democratic candidates and his 2008 support for President Barack Obama. (Orman has also contributed to Republicans and says he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012).

With control of the Senate potentially at stake, Orman refuses to say which party he would side with in Washington should he win. The two independents currently in the Senate join with Democrats in voting for leadership positions. Orman says he will organize with the party that wins control of the Senate after these elections, but has been noncommittal on what he would do should he be the deciding factor in determining the majority.

In a recent debate between the two, Roberts played into Orman’s uncertain allegiances by saying Kansas voters “know that I will vote for a Republican majority and end the gridlock by (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid.”

Orman has not received any financial support from the Democratic Party. In addition to his personal wealth, he has received nearly $1 million from the Mayday super PAC, which backs candidates who support campaign finance reform. He’s also received more than $1 million from the Committee to Elect an Independent Senate, a super PAC created to bolster Orman. The AFL-CIO has also gotten involved in the race on behalf of Orman.

Roberts has gotten help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Freedom Partners Action Fund, which is backed by the wealthy entrepreneur and conservative activists Charles and David Koch, has put more than $1.5 million in the race, and the conservative Ending Spending Action Fund has spent $1.2 million.

Roberts has showcased Republican heavy-hitters, including fellow Kansan Bob Dole. Sarah Palin stopped there and Mitt Romney, who won the state in 2012 with 60% of the vote, will be there Monday.

In the final two weeks of the race, the polls are tightening. Real Clear Politics polling average rates this race as tied.

Follow the bus tour on Twitter #WhereIsChuck

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