By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY Kan. (Reuters) - Kansas is known as a reliably Republican state but the fate of two longtime party leaders, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts and Governor Sam Brownback, was in serious doubt in Tuesday's election.
Polls show Roberts, 78, who barely won the Republican primary over a challenger backed by the conservative Tea Party movement, in a dead heat with millionaire businessman Greg Orman, an independent.
The race could be critical for Republicans, who need to gain six seats to take control of the U.S. Senate.
Orman and his wife, Sybil, cast their votes Tuesday at an upscale swim and racquet club in suburban Kansas City, and the candidate told reporters he felt confident about his chances.
"The voters of Kansas are going to send a strong message to Washington that you can't hide behind your party labels," said Orman, who said that if he is elected he will caucus with whichever party controls the Senate. "You've got to roll up your sleeves and get things done."
Kansas has only elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate since 1932. But Orman's candidacy soared as he painted Roberts as an out-of-touch contributer to political gridlock in Washington, and after the Democratic contender pulled out of the race in September.
In a Fox News poll released on Saturday, Orman held a 44 percent to 43 percent edge over Roberts. A poll released Monday by Public Policy Polling showed Orman leading Roberts 47 percent to 46 percent.
"Orman is not well-known and doesn't have a record of public service but I think that may be a good thing," said former Republican Party worker Karen Johnson. "People are just dissatisfied with Congress and all the things that don't get done."
Joan Ratzlaff, 77, a retired clothing company employee who lives in Mission, Kansas, a suburb of metropolitan Kansas City, said she voted Tuesday morning against Roberts even as she voted for Brownback, whose deep tax cuts Ratzlaff favors.
"Roberts has been in there forever. I think they need some new blood,” Ratzlaff said.
Roberts has been trying to counter Orman's rise in the polls by calling him a Democrat in disguise, citing his campaign contributions to top Democrats.
In the governor's race, Brownback, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, also is struggling to fend off his challenger - Democratic state representative Paul Davis, who has pledged to freeze Brownback's controversial tax cut program.
Davis went from a longshot to strong contender after a drop in state revenue that coincided with the income tax cuts engineered by Brownback. The cuts prompted Standard & Poor's to slash the Kansas bond rating in August and warn of a budget deficit next year.
Brownback's advertising has cast Davis as a big-spending liberal but many moderate Republicans have thrown their support to Davis. A Fox News poll released on Saturday showed Davis leading Brownback by 48 percent to 42 percent. The PPP results had Davis leading Brownback 46 percent to 45 percent.
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Carey Gillam and Doina Chiacu)