Kansas shakeup could ruin GOP Senate takeover

The Democrat has suddenly quit the race, leaving Sen. Pat Roberts (R) to face Greg Orman, a well-funded independent. The Orman factor adds new uncertainty.

John Hanna/AP/File
Greg Orman, an Independent candidate for the US Senate in Kansas, answers questions from reporters during a news conference in July as his wife, Sybil, listens in Topeka, Kan..

What’s the matter with Kansas?

Suddenly, there’s no Democrat running for Senate in the Sunflower State – and that’s good news for the Democratic Party, which is fighting to keep its Senate majority. In improbable fashion, deep-red Kansas could be the Democrats’ savior.

Democratic nominee Chad Taylor abruptly withdrew from the race Wednesday, amid poor fundraising and low poll numbers. Independent candidate Greg Orman can now go one-on-one against three-term Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who just survived a bruising primary. The early thinking is that Mr. Orman, a wealthy businessman, has a real shot.   

Apparently, national Republicans think so as well. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is dispatching veteran campaign strategist Chris LaCivita to Kansas to help Roberts, according to The New York Times.

A mid-August poll by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Orman beating Senator Roberts by 10 points – 43 percent to 33 percent – in a hypothetical matchup. Now that pairing (plus a low-scoring libertarian) is no longer so hypothetical. Perhaps more alarming for Roberts is that the same poll showed him with just a 27 percent approval rating.

If Roberts loses in November, and the Democrats can convince Orman to caucus with them, that could spell the difference between losing and keeping their Senate majority. 

“Roberts has the fight of his life on his hands. And if you were going to cast a vote right now, you’d be talking about Kansas sending, I believe, our first independent to Congress. This is huge,” Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University, told The Wichita Eagle.

Mr. Rackaway predicted that Mr. Taylor’s supporters would flock to Orman.

Roberts isn’t the only Republican incumbent in trouble in Kansas. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) faces a spirited challenge from Democrat Paul Davis; polls are close. Mr. Davis, Democratic leader in the Kansas House, says that tax cuts are “wrecking the state budget” and harming public education. In July, Davis announced the support of 100 Kansas Republicans, including more than 50 former legislators.

In their statement of support, the Republicans accused Governor Brownback, a former US senator, of bringing back from Washington “a sharp-edged, win-at-all-costs political approach.”

So back to the original question: What’s the matter with Kansas?

Back in 2004, when Thomas Frank wrote a bestseller by that name, the “matter” was that the state had moved in a conservative populist direction. A Republican civil war pushed a lot of moderates to the sidelines. 

Today, that same conflict – moderates versus conservatives – is playing out again, and could cost the Republicans both a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion. But the way it is manifesting in each race is different. In the Senate race, the conflict played out in the GOP primary, where tea party-backed physician Milton Wolf tried to take out the establishment-backed Roberts.

Dr. Wolf lost, barely, but perhaps only because of a bizarre revelation – that he had posted gruesome X-rays on his Facebook page with inappropriate comments. Roberts was certainly ripe for the picking. Between his service in the House and Senate, he’s been in Washington four decades and had lost touch with Kansas voters. At the start of his campaign, he didn’t help himself when he admitted that he didn’t own a home in Kansas. Wolf didn’t beat him, but he left Roberts deeply wounded.

Brownback’s problems are more ideological. And voters view governors differently from senators: Governors are based in the state, and voters can keep a close eye on them; senators go away to Washington. Thus, the Unites States has a consistent history of Democratic governors being elected from time to time in Republican states and vice versa.

Still, in Kansas’s Senate race, some Republican strategists have a hard time seeing Roberts losing to an independent who used to be a Democrat.

“Kansas is a red state, and it will be pretty hard for someone to come in and beat a Republican,” says a D.C.-based communications adviser to conservative GOP candidates. “Even if Roberts loses, this other dude will be out the door in six years.”

There’s another wrinkle that could hurt Orman’s chances. Even though Taylor has dropped out, the secretary of state in Kansas ruled Thursday that he cannot legally get his name off the ballot. So Kansas Democrats who haven’t been paying attention will see Taylor on the ballot and the “D” next to his name, and could think they’re doing their party a favor by voting for him. 

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