The Kansas Senate race has gone from boring to interesting to closely watched in the span of less than a month. Senator Pat Roberts, assumed safe at the start of the cycle, now may be in for the fight of his political life.
Roberts has historically benefited from the Republican tilt of his state. First elected in 1996 with 62% of the vote, Roberts has cruised to reelection with 82% in 2002 and 60% in 2008. He has faced minimal primary competition. Until recently.
Roberts survived a brutal primary with Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf by the skin of his teeth, garnering 48% to Wolf’s 41%. It is arguable in a two-man race Roberts would have lost. During the campaign Wolf hit Roberts on his tenure in DC and how little time he spends in the state. It didn’t help Robert’s campaign was/is still using 1996 tactics and technology.
Roberts was expected to face a little known Democratic challenger, Chad Taylor, who won his primary unconvincingly (53%) and a well-known Independent candidate, Greg Orman. Polls showed the three-way race close, evidence Roberts was badly damaged due to the GOP primary.
However, eyebrows were raised when PPP (D) found Roberts at a horrid 27% approval rating with 44% disapproving. Interestingly enough, 39% of voters did not know enough to offer an opinion (unheard of for a three term incumbent). In the three-way race Roberts led with 32%, Taylor was at 25% and Orman at 23%. But in a head to head with Orman Roberts lost 43%-33%.
This poll undoubtedly led to Democratic efforts to lobby Taylor to drop out of the race (just as Alaskan Democrats did). It worked. Taylor dropped out of the race this week, setting up a 1-1 match-up between Roberts and Orman.
At the fundamentals level the race favors Roberts. Kansas is a strongly Republican state even when the conservative/moderate divide in the party is considered. Obama is deeply unpopular in the state and FiveThirtyEight shows this gives Roberts a huge edge. But, the national environment against incumbents and the moderate profile of Orman give him an edge, especially since he is not well-defined to many voters.
Roberts could knock out Orman at this stage of the race. But the incumbent, according to the Rothenburg Political Report, has not been actively campaigning since he won his primary. This is political suicide with the threat of a well-funded Independent looming over Robert’s head.
Robert’s does have a warchest and with polling showing such a close race his start-up campaign and national Republicans will certainly delve into Orman’s record. The national GOP has sent a prominent consultant to lead his nascent campaign. What they find could be a boon to Roberts even if Orman does not have a voting record to dissect.
For his part, Orman is being smart. Orman is airing ads showcasing his moderate, business friendly profile and subtly feeding the GOP feud in the state. He has yet to say who he would caucus with if elected and has not been happy to disclose he voted for Obama in 2008 (Robert’s campaign material one assumes).
Polls have shown Orman winning around 20%-30% of Republicans and a plurality of Independents. He also garnered a decent share of Democrats in a three-way race.
Orman’s path to victory relied on consolidating Democrats (easier with Taylor out), winning Independents and taking a chunk of Republican voters. Ironically, Orman may have traded one problem for another. He would have struggled to get Democratic votes with Taylor in but now with Taylor out he may struggle to get GOP votes. Republicans will certainly highlight that Democrats are pushing Orman forward. They would also be foolish not to raise the specter he would caucus with Harry Reid and support Obama’s agenda.
National Democrats have been mum on what they will do in the race. If they support or endorse Orman it may drive away Independents and definitely hurt him among Republicans. But, if they do not back Orman they may fail to expand the Senate map in their favor. Orman, though well-funded, does not have Robert’s cash and thus without Democratic support could be bombarded with a wave of negative ads he cannot respond to.
Considering all these factors Kansas has to be considered the sleeper race of the cycle. Not only will the state feature a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race but also its first competitive Senate race in over two decades (in the age of Obama no less). Republicans should come out on top, especially with Roberts ramping up his campaign and Orman still relatively undefined, but combined with Louisiana’s unique jungle primary, Alaska’s close Senate race and now Kansas we may not know who controls the Senate until well after November.
Addendum: PPP has an interesting and questionable methodology and combined with the sheer number of surveys they have put out their results should be taken with some skepticism.
Addenum 2: The Kansas Secretary of State announced Thursday the Democratic candidate had to remain on the ballot. Taylor has announced he will challenge the ruling, citing documentation he says shows he had fulfilled the requirements to remove his name from the ballot.