Kansas makes it harder for GOP to seize Senate

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in 2004
Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in 2004 MCT

Sudden turmoil in a U.S. Senate race in Kansas will make it harder for Republicans to hold the seat _ and win control of the entire Senate _ but they still have the edge.

Sen. Pat Roberts, the three-term Republican incumbent, led polls in a three-way contest. Now, the sudden decision Wednesday by Democrat Chad Taylor to quit the race suggests that an anti-incumbent vote could coalesce around independent Greg Orman and give him a very real shot at ousting the Republican.

Also, Roberts’ future is shakier today because he has to go one on one with a candidate who can reach out to both moderates and liberals without the burden of the Democratic Party label in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1932.

Roberts, plagued by controversy over whether he still has a home in Kansas or has lost touch with the state, appears to be one of the nation’s few vulnerable Senate Republicans. Sensing the new danger, the party’s campaign operation in Washington pledged immediate help, dispatching a top strategist to Kansas and indicating more aid is on the way.

The 78-year-old senator and his party still have advantages.

First, Democrat Taylor still may be on the November ballot and threaten to divide the vote. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Thursday that Taylor failed to meet the legal requirements to withdraw and that his name would stay.

Second, Orman, a 45-year-old businessman, remains largely unknown and undefined. Roberts could portray him as beholden to liberal Democrats.

Orman presents himself as a centrist eager for both parties’ support, but there are strong hints of Democratic influence. He briefly considered a 2008 bid against Roberts as a Democrat, but he said this week he was uncomfortable with having a party label.

If he won, Orman could side with either party in voting for Senate leaders and other organizing purposes. He would not have to choose a caucus until after the election, and even if he picked a party with which to caucus, he could switch at any time.

Even with the Republicans facing the prospect of losing the Kansas seat, the upheaval did not instantly imperil their chances to win the Senate. Independent analysts predict Republicans could pick up four to eight seats, and because outlooks for different races tend to change almost daily, those forecasts haven’t changed.

Republicans need a net gain of six to win control of the Senate, and they are already virtually assured of winning three Democratic-held seats, in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. Democrats remain vulnerable in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina, and possibly in Michigan and Oregon.

Republicans face difficult races in Georgia and Kentucky, where their candidates remain favored. They’re conservative states, and President Barack Obama’s dismal approval ratings are hurting Democrats.

While Orman eschews a party label, Democrats were clearly pleased that he might be able to oust Roberts. Orman got an indirect boost from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who spoke to Taylor about leaving the race.

Roberts’ campaign alleged that Taylor’s withdrawal was the result of a bargain by Democrats to benefit Orman’s candidacy. Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, accused Democrats of using “corrupt backroom deals” and “secret promises” in a bid to defeat Roberts.

“It sure looks like the Kansas Democrat party bosses could not care less about what their own voters think and forced Taylor out,” Arnold said Thursday. “The people of Kansas deserve to know what is going on behind the closed doors of the Democrat power brokers.”

Orman’s campaign fired back. Roberts “is campaigning just like he operates in Washington, offering nothing but partisan attacks and finger-pointing instead of focusing on solutions to this nation’s problems,” said Jim Jonas, Orman’s campaign manager.

McCaskill’s office said no one at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or in Senate leadership asked the senator to speak to Taylor.

Taylor wouldn’t comment on McCaskill. “I’m done. I’m out. I’m withdrawn from the race,” he said.

Kobach, the secretary of state, said Taylor submitted a letter Wednesday, the deadline to withdraw. But he said candidates wishing to be removed from the ballot also must declare themselves “incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected.” Taylor did not do so. “Mr. Taylor is an attorney and he is capable of reading the statute and the statute is very clear on this point,” Kobach said.

Taylor plans to challenge Kobach’s ruling, alleging that Assistant Secretary of State Brad Bryant repeatedly confirmed that his letter would be sufficient.

Kobach, a Republican, said that the party’s position had no bearing and that the Attorney General’s Office agreed with the decision. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is also a Republican.

A legal challenge could be next. “This could well end up in court, and I don’t have a good sense for how the courts would rule on this question,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

The race’s emergence as a potentially competitive contest does give Republicans new headaches. “They thought they wouldn’t have to spend a nickel there, and they don’t have extra dollars to spread around,” said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday began working with Roberts to bolster his campaign. The first move is to bring in Chris LaCivita, a veteran party consultant.

Roberts has been in political trouble for awhile. He’s a Washington insider in a year when most voters hate Congress. “He created an image for himself as being out of touch,” Rothenberg said.

Roberts won the Aug. 5 Republican primary with 48 percent against physician Milton Wolf, who campaigned as an anti-establishment tea party sympathizer. While Wolf backers are unlikely to rally to Orman, there’s a question how many will turn out at all. Independents and Democrats combined make up more than half of the Kansas electorate.

Orman this week got support from some moderate Republicans, including Rochelle Chronister, a former state party chairwoman who, along with 70 other former Republican state officeholders, endorsed him Wednesday.

“You’ve got to work with the other side in order to make the whole thing happen,” Chronister said. “And I believe that Greg is that kind of a candidate – he wants to make things happen. And lord knows they’re not happening now.”

Kansas Democrats on Thursday did not embrace Orman, but the party had no official position on Orman’s candidacy.

“It is clear that Kansans are ready for new leadership. We will be monitoring this race closely,” said Joan Wagnon, Kansas Democratic chairwoman.

“We want to see a Democrat in that position. But we also want to see Pat Roberts defeated,” said Lee Kinch, the party vice chairman.

Lowry of The Wichita Eagle reported from Wichita. Lightman reported from Washington. Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau and Dave Helling and Brad Cooper of The Kansas City Star contributed.