Fate of U.S. Senate might rest with this guy

Independent Kansas U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman and his wife Sybil watch from the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game between Kansas State and Auburn in Manhattan, Kan., Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Independent Kansas U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman and his wife Sybil watch from the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game between Kansas State and Auburn in Manhattan, Kan., Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) AP

With control of the U.S. Senate on the line, pundits and politicians nationwide have become obsessed with a tantalizing question: If elected, which party would Greg Orman choose?

Orman, an independent candidate for the Senate in Kansas, is polling ahead of incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. If victorious, he could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

“What will Greg Orman do?” pondered one recent headline in The New York Times. NBC News called the 45-year-old businessman from Olathe “the most interesting man in politics this November.” The Huffington Post even coined a new phrase: “The Orman Factor.”

Orman’s own caginess has added to the intrigue. He gets to choose whether to caucus with Democrats or with Republicans, and he has said he’ll side with whichever party holds the majority to give Kansas a stronger voice.

But if neither party has a clear majority, he says, he’ll talk with both sides to determine which party is “most committed to solving our country’s problems.”

This kind of tiebreaker scenario could bestow Orman with extraordinary bargaining power in negotiations with party leadership and likely would guarantee him his pick of plum committee assignments.

“He may be the most important guy in the Senate for a few days in January if he gets elected,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Orman might even demand new party leadership: He’s on the record saying that both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have been too partisan for too long to earn his vote for majority leader.

“If it’s 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and him, he might have the power to say to the Democrats, ‘I’m going to caucus with you, but Harry Reid can’t be your leader,’ or to say to Republicans, ‘I’ll caucus with you, but Mitch McConnell can’t be your leader,’” Kondik said.

With Democrat Chad Taylor now out of the race, Orman is under growing pressure to clarify where his loyalties lie.

At a debate earlier this month, Roberts challenged Orman to commit one way or another.

“When are you going to tell us what party you’re going to caucus with?” Roberts asked.

Orman never got a chance to respond. The moderator jumped in to say the candidates were out of time and had to move to closing arguments. But the question later showed up in a Roberts web ad.

The Roberts campaign is eager to paint Orman as a closet Democrat. But for now, it’s to Orman’s benefit if he can be seen as above the political fray.

Meanwhile, political analysts and columnists are scouring his past for clues as to which way he’s leaning.

Orman has been both a registered Republican and a registered Democrat over the years. He made a run against Roberts as a Democrat in 2007 but backed out of that race before the official filing deadline.

He’s donated to candidates from both parties, but primarily to Democrats at the federal level _ records show he donated $4,600 to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in November 2007.

Orman recently told The Washington Post that he voted for Obama in 2008 and for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

And in an interview with The Kansas City Star earlier this year, he said he identifies closely with moderate Sen. Angus King from Maine.

King is one of two independents who caucus _ or coordinate politically _ with the Democrats. The other is liberal Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Orman said in a July 4 interview that he considers King a true independent.

“Angus said he was caucusing with the Democrats because they were in the majority and that was the best thing from him to do for his state,” he said.

“Ultimately the best thing for Kansas would be to caucus with the majority,” he added. “But if we do create an environment where Angus and I prevent either party from having a majority, then I think the best thing for Kansas is to say we’re going to caucus with the party that’s most committed to solving our country’s problems.”

Asked which party that would be, Orman said he didn’t know. A spokesman for King declined to comment.

It’s all just feverish speculation at this point. Orman has to win first.

And even then the chances are slim that the Senate will end up split between 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats.

There have only been two times in history when the Senate has been tied _ in 1881 and 2001, said Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

In 1881, Republicans persuaded independent Sen. William Mahone of Virginia to join their party, handing them the majority. Mahone received a basket of flowers from Republican President James A. Garfield as a thank you gift, as well as the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee and control over the appointment of Senate officers.

In 2001, when the Senate was tied, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent but walked across the aisle and allied with the Democrats, tipping control of the Senate to them in what GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi described as a “coup of one.”

That was the only time that the majority status of the two parties has changed in the middle of a Congress, Ritchie said.

“All the Republican chairmen had to step down from their committees and Democrats took their positions and became a majority party as a result of his actions,” he said.

Republicans were furious, but Democrats rewarded Jeffords with chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee and seats on the prestigious Finance Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Special Committee on Aging.

More recently, former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut won re-election as an independent in 2006 but decided to side with the Democrats in return for keeping his chairmanship of the Governmental Affairs Committee. His decision helped give the Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate.

If Orman ends up playing a decisive role in determining the balance of power in the Senate come November, he, too, would be expected to leverage the situation into better committee assignments, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks House, Senate and gubernatorial elections.

“That’s usually the first ask,” Gonzales said.

Orman likely would seek a spot on the Agriculture Committee, a coveted prize for any lawmaker from Kansas, said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Also on the table might be a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which doles out federal funds, Loomis said.

Orman could even negotiate with party leaders to bring certain legislation up for a vote, such as campaign finance reform, he said.

But as a freshman senator he would have to tread carefully. He’d still have to work with his Senate colleagues after the political maneuvering ended.

“You have some leverage, but you can’t be seen as using that leverage in any kind of unrealistic or threatening way,” Loomis said.

In the end, Orman must weigh his decision against the political fallout.

Any move that helped Democrats keep the Senate majority would harm his chances for re-election in the red state of Kansas. But siding with Republicans could leave him vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right.

If Orman does choose to cast his lot with Democrats, it could be in part because he has a better chance of winning re-election as a Democrat than he has of winning a nomination as a Republican, Loomis said.

“If you caucus with Democrats you would likely be able to run as an independent with no Democratic opponent, or as a Democrat in six years,” Loomis said. “Even if you caucus with the Republicans, I would be stunned if the Republicans would not put up challengers. You have half a dozen people who’ve been lusting after that seat.”

Byran Lowry of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this article from Wichita, Kan. Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star contributed from Kansas City, Mo.