Kansas Senate race: Can Mr. Orman go to Washington ... and fix it?

Now that the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the name of the erstwhile Democratic candidate won't be on the ballot, incumbent Pat Roberts is in a difficult Senate race against Independent Greg Orman, a champion of reform.

Chris Neal/The Capital Journal/AP
Independent US Senate candidate Greg Orman discusses voting trends with a class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.

Senator Roberts, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

At least that’s the way it may seem to Republican Pat Roberts, the incumbent seeking his fourth term in the US Senate.

Polls show him behind, even though Kansas is a conservative state and there’s no Democrat running against him. Part of the reason that Roberts is struggling against an independent opponent is that many voters think he spends too much time in Washington, and not in the state.

And the race, although it will be decided by Kansans, isn’t just about Kansas. It’s shaping up as one of the tossup races that could decide which party controls the Senate and – perhaps more important – as a symbolic referendum on whether the nation’s political system is broken and in need of major reform, as challenger Greg Orman asserts.

The latest news comes from the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled Thursday that the name of Chad Taylor, the Democrat who dropped out of the race, shouldn’t appear on the November ballot.

The ruling pleases Democrats, because a simpler ballot should improve the chances of Mr. Orman knocking off his incumbent foe. Orman hasn’t said which party he’ll caucus with, if elected, but has pledged that first and foremost he’ll work across the aisle in Congress with the interests of Kansans at heart.

Recent opinion polls, when averaged together by the website RealClearPolitics, show Orman with a lead of 1.2 percentage points over Roberts.

Roberts is a solidly conservative former Marine who’s arguing that “conservative Kansas values are the best medicine for what ails Washington.” He touts top-tier ratings from groups including National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, and Heritage Action. As of July, his campaign has been able to outspend Orman’s by $10 to $1.

Orman is a young business leader (and former McKinsey consultant) who argues Washington needs medicine that isn’t purely conservative or purely liberal. Growing disillusionment with the increasingly partisan behavior of Democrats and Republicans led him to become an independent and to found a Common Sense Coalition to revive centrist sensibilities.

The challenge for Roberts is that Orman can appeal to Kansans as suitably conservative on fiscal matters while appealing to social-issue voters who want someone to the left of Roberts on abortion or background checks for buying guns. A picture on Orman’s campaign website shows him shaking hands with Ronald Reagan as a teenager, as part of the Boys’ Nation program of the American Legion.

More broadly, though, Orman’s whole message is about what he calls “fixing a broken system” in Washington. He supports things like amending the Constitution to impose term limits on members of Congress, barring lawmakers from becoming lobbyists when they retire, and overturning a US Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United) “giving corporations the same rights as people” to finance political ads.

Polls show that a majority of Americans see the political system as needing reform – and that they want members of the two parties to compromise more often to get things done. Approval of Congress stands near record lows.

A majority of Kansans, moreover, think Roberts spends too much time in Washington, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey.

At the same time, though, it remains to be seen if the specific prescriptions Orman is backing can carry the day with voters.

Liberal donors have some incentive to promote Orman as a populist torchbearer. Democrats in the Senate recently tried without success to launch an amendment like Orman’s, to overturn Citizens United.

In some scenarios, an Orman win could decide which party controls the Senate.

But the big Democratic money has to be spread among more than a handful of key competitive races – and those other races involve actual Democrats. So it’s not yet clear how much money will flow to Orman’s aid.

Faced with the surprise competition from Orman, Roberts is seeking to rally his base and revive his momentum. Former presidential candidate and senator Bob Dole is among the Kansans voicing support for the incumbent.

Political-action committees are also coming to Roberts’s aid – including “leadership PACs” from his party and gun-rights groups. Big contributors to his own campaign committee range from energy companies and agribusiness to financial services firms (Roberts sits on the Senate Finance Committee) and pharmaceutical companies.

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