The Kansas Senate race is just getting weirder

First, Democrat Chad Taylor bows out of the race, boosting prospects for independent Greg Orman. Then, the GOP secretary of state determined that Taylor's name must stay on the ballot. The outcome could swing control of the Senate.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
US Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas waves to the crowd as he campaigns in a parade in Gardner, Kan. on Aug. 2. An afterthought all year, Kansas is suddenly a buzz as an independent candidate drives the Democratic nominee from the race – if not from the ballot – and improved his position to take down Republican Roberts.

As I noted on Thursday, Chad Taylor, the putative Democratic nominee for US Senate in Kansas announced his intention to drop out of the race, setting up the potential of a two-way race between Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and upstart independent candidate Greg Orman. When he announced his resignation yesterday, Mr. Taylor relied on a Kansas statute that allows a candidate to remove him or herself from the ballot, provided proper notice is given to the secretary of state before the deadline. Later today, Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state, announced that Taylor’s notice was not legally sufficient and that his name would stay on the ballot:

In a boost for Republicans and Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, the Democrat who attempted Wednesday to drop out of the three-way Senate race must remain on the ballot, the state’s top election official ruled Thursday.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who endorsed Roberts during the primary, argued that Democratic nominee Chad Taylor failed to declare that he would be unable to perform the job if elected, a requirement of Kansas law.

Taylor’s withdrawal letter cited that law but didn’t explicitly reference any reason for his decision.

“The law is quite clear on this,” said Kobach. “Those words have to be given meaning, and that is what we’re doing.”

The decision could undermine efforts to unseat Roberts and potentially rewrite the narrative of the 2014 midterms. It’s certain to anger Democrats, who were hopeful that their candidate’s exit from the race would clear a path for independent Greg Orman to challenge Roberts one on one. Recent polls showed Orman ahead of Roberts in a head-to-head race.

It’s unclear whether Democrats will challenge the decision. The state party has declined repeated requests for comment.

In a statement, Taylor argued he was misled by a senior Kobach aide, Brad Bryant, who convinced him his brief withdrawal letter met the legal requirements to end his campaign. He said he intends to challenge the ruling, although it’s unclear if a challenge would be heard in court of by a state Board of Objections.

“Upon confirming that my letter would remove my name from the ballot, I presented identification, signed the notary ledger, and signed the letter before a Secretary of State employee notarized it,” Taylor said Thursday. “I again confirmed with Mr. Bryant that this notarized letter removed my name from the ballot. He again said ‘Yes.’ My candidacy in this race was terminated yesterday.”

But Kobach told POLITICO that Bryant “did not tell [Taylor]that his filing was sufficient.”

“Mr. Taylor’s an attorney and it’s interesting — many other people have complied with this law since it was applied in 1997,” he said. “Mr. Taylor, an attorney, either didn’t read the law or didn’t underastnd the law.”

He also insisted that politics played no role in keeping Taylor on the ballot — he called it a unanimous agreement among attorneys in his office and in the attorney general’s office and said it would’ve been the same if Taylor were a Republican candidate. He added that any challenge by Democrats must be resolved quickly for the state to print ballots by a Sept. 20 legal deadline.

“They will try to make political hay of this. The law really is clear,” he said.

The statute that controls this issue is KSA 25-306b(b), which states as follows:

 

Any person who has been nominated by any means for any national, state, county or township office who declares that they are incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected may cause such person’s name to be withdrawn from nomination by a request in writing, signed by the person and acknowledged before an officer qualified to take acknowledgments of deeds. Any such request shall be filed with the secretary of state in the case of national and state offices and with the county election officer in the case of county and township offices. Except as provided in subsection (d), in the case of national and state offices, any such request shall be filed within seven days, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, after the meeting of the state board of canvassers for the final canvass of primary election provided for in K.S.A. 25-3205, and amendments thereto. Except as provided in subsection (d), in the case of county and township offices, any such request shall be filed within 10 days after the meeting of the county board of canvassers to canvass the primary election as provided in K.S.A. 25-3104, and amendments thereto. No name withdrawn as provided in this section shall be printed on the ballots for such office for the general election.

The issue here, of course, is that Taylor’s letter to the secretary of state doesn’t specifically declare that they are “incapable of fulfilling the duties of the office, if elected. Kobach’s argument is that since the letter doesn’t include language to that effect, it is not sufficient under the law. One potential counterargument to that statement is that the statute does not specifically say that the notice to the secretary of state must specifically state that the person in question is incapable of fulfilling the duties of office. Taylor, meanwhile appears to be making an estoppel argument in that he is saying that a representative of the office told him that his letter was sufficient and that he relief upon that argument in proceeding forward with the letter as is. Of course, it’s common knowledge that government employees are not supposed to be giving people who use government offices legal advice, so I’m not certain that a court would hold that Taylor was justified in relying on these alleged comments from Kobach’s deputy. In any case, Taylor is saying that he intends to fight Kobach’s decision, so it would appear that this matter isn’t completely resolved.

On some level, I have to wonder if keeping Taylor’s name on the ballot will really have as big an impact on the race as Republicans seem to think. If Taylor doesn’t campaign and endorses Ordman, and if state and national Democrats do the same then it seems likely that most of the people who were going to vote for Taylor will end up switching to Orman anyway. So, while it still seems unlikely that a Republican can actually lose a Senate race in Kansas, something that hasn’t happened for about 80 years at this point, Roberts may not be out of the woods quite yet. This is likely the reason that the national Republican Party has essentially taken over Roberts’s campaign, in no small part because Roberts himself hasn’t seemed to be very interested in campaigning since he won the primary last month. With the challenge from Orman now potentially becoming far more serious, the national GOP obviously sees this is as a problem.

So, it remains unclear how all of this will pan out, but it does appear as though Kansas is going to be the unlikely site of an interesting campaign in 2014.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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