Politically speaking, we rarely pay attention to Kansas. Kansas hasn’t voted Democratic for president since ’64. Kansas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since Babe Ruth was in Yankee pinstripes. In national lore, Kansas is basically the place where Bob Dole dreamt in vain of the Oval Office, and Dorothy dreamt of Oz.
So who could have imagined that Kansas would suddenly become so consequential – by scrambling the ’14 chessboard and throwing a wrench into the GOP’s dreams of seizing control of the Senate? Which is exactly what happened last night.
Chad Tayor, the underfinanced Democratic senatorial candidate (so underfinanced that he’d drawn the nickname “Hanging Chad”), peremptorily quit the race. In all likelihood, no Democrat will be listed on the November ballot. But Democrats are actually thrilled about this development, because it means that three-term incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is seriously imperiled. And the Republicans are suffering heartburn.
Wait a sec. The Democratic guy pulls out…and Pat Roberts is imperiled? How’s that possible?
OK, I need to explain.
There’s another guy in the race, independent Greg Orman – a political newbie with money to burn, a businessman who co-founded an investment firm – and he has scored in the polls because voters like his plague-on-both-parties rhetoric. He bills himself as “fiscally responsible and socially tolerant.” He voted for Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012. He says that if he wins, he’d caucus with the party that’s most willing “to put forward a real, true problem-solving agenda.” He has struck a chord with lines like this: “If we keep sending Republicans and Democrats back to Washington, we are going to continue to get the results we’ve been getting.”
But Roberts was fine with having Orman in the race, because it meant that Orman and Taylor would split the sizeable anti-Roberts electorate – the Democrats, the swing voters, the moderate Republicans (yes, there are moderate Republicans in Kansas), and the generally disaffected Kansas who are miffed that Roberts has become a creature of Washington. Roberts is very unpopular these days – at last glance, a 27 percent approval rating – in part because he rarely visits his state. The house he lists as his home is actually occupied by two of his donors; Roberts quips, “I have full access to the recliner.”
A mid-August poll showed that Roberts was strongest in a three-way. He got 32 percent; Taylor, 25; Orman, 23. (A fringe libertarian candidate got 3 percent). More importantly, the Republican’s main rivals combined for 48 percent, dwarfing his own share. And when Roberts was matched against Orman in a one-on-one, the incumbent looked like toast: Orman 43, Roberts 33.
But that matchup seemed hypothetical, because Taylor kept insisting that his Democratic campaign was alive and well. “I’m not getting out of this race,” he said – shortly before he got out of the race. Word has it that Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill privately urged him to step aside and give Orman clear sailing, although the reasons for Taylor’s departure remain hush hush. (The fact that, in mid-July, he had only $1670 in his campaign kitty may have been a contributing factor.)
Now everything has changed. Without Taylor around to split the anti-incumbent votes, Orman can potentially garner them all. Orman also has deep pockets; he won’t get buried by Roberts’s incumbent-money advantage. And at a time when people are fed up with DC insiders, Orman can score with disaffected voters by vowing (as he did the other day), “to go to Washington as a problem-solver, not a partisan.”Still, it’s way too soon to annoint Orman as the winner, as a guy destined to join Angus King and Bernie Sanders as Senate independents (King and Sanders caucus with the Democrats). It’s one thing for disaffected Kansas Republicans to diss Pat Roberts in a summer poll; it’s another thing to follow through and actually vote against him in November. Orman did vote for Obama in ’08, as noted earlier, and ruby-red Kansas may not ultimately cotton to someone who once affiliated himself with The Other. Indeed, Republicans are already gearing up to paint Orman as a liberal hiding behind “an independent smokescreen.”
But in the fight for the Senate, the national map has now expanded. Republicans need a net gain of six seats, and the last thing they wanted was to spend autumn money and resources on securing Kansas, of all places. At minimum, the ’14 midtems just got a lot more interesting.
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