As unlikely as it appeared at the start of the cycle Kansas is playing host to both a competitive gubernatorial and Senatorial election. Republican Governor Sam Brownback is facing blowback after cutting education (and revenues) while Pat Roberts is suffering from incumbent fatigue and a divisive primary.
Roberts is now perhaps the most endangered GOP incumbent of the cycle. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has opened a clear lead in his race and no other incumbent Republican Senator faces a serious challenge. By contrast, Roberts, has no edge in his contest.
According to a new poll conducted by Survey USA for KSN.com, Roberts and his Independent challenger Greg Orman are basically tied with Orman holding a statistically insignificant 37%-36% edge. Most notable in the poll is not that Roberts trails but that he could still win with less than 50% of the vote. Former Democratic nominee Chad Taylor, who dropped out of the race but has to have his name stay on the ballot according to the Secretary of State, is polling at 10%.
It was widely assumed that after Taylor dropped out Democratic support would consolidate around Orman. This poll shows that assumption might have been a stretch. Orman’s support in the poll comes from 52% of Democrats, 42% of Independents and 26% of Republicans. Orman’s failure to consolidate the Democratic vote may come from the fact that among the voters who had planned to back Taylor merely 43% now support Orman, 30% still plan to back Taylor and Roberts gets 15% of their votes. A full 71% of voters were aware Taylor had suspended his campaign and 58% knew his name had to stay on the ballot.
Orman is hardly getting overwhelming support from Democrats after Taylor dropped out and that opens up an opportunity for Roberts that seemed to drop away after Taylor’s exit. Specifically, Roberts could still win with a mere plurality of the vote. When Taylor was running Robert’s campaign hoped to win with around 40%-45% of the vote. With Taylor’s name still on the ballot this remains a possibility.
National Republicans in recent weeks have grown increasingly concerned about Robert’s campaign. He had not campaigned in the state since his primary and his campaign manager made a significant gaffe about Roberts spending time in DC (as opposed to Kansas). In response, Republicans sent a well-known consultant, Chris LaCivita, and a legal adviser to Kansas to take over his campaign. Robert’s former campaign manager was recently released. Politico is reporting that multiple GOP senators are planning to barnstorm the state and fundraise for Roberts.
The GOP playbook against Orman is the same as it would be if both he and Taylor were in the race. Tie Orman to Obama and do not let him get away with appearing as a moderate. Robert’s has taken this advice to heart. In the candidates first debate last Saturday Roberts took every opportunity to tie Orman to Obama. He charged Orman (correctly) with supporting Obama in 2008 and warning Orman supporters (including 26% of Republicans, 42% of Independents and 19% of conservatives) that he would support Harry Reid’s liberal agenda in the Senate. Orman, for his part, did little to convincingly fend off these attacks.
It remains to be seen whether Roberts can reunite the statewide GOP coalition of conservative Independents and Republicans. Moderate Republicans have been turned off by Governor Brownback’s conservatism and Robert’s trek to the right during the primary. They may see Orman as a viable protest candidate. Independents seem largely drawn to Orman because of his business background and soft-spoken manner. Robert’s attacks will likely prove fruitful however if they are not effectively answered.. Unfortunately for Orman’s camp, when they do answer they will have to be careful in how they do so as not to turn off Democratic support.
Already this has become a problem for Orman. Orman has said he would not have voted for Obamcare but the idea of full repeal is unrealistic. This middle ground might appeal to moderates but Orman needs some conservative and liberal support to win. The kind of argument he is making seems destined to turn both ideological camps away from his ccampaign.
Ultimately, this poll suggests a number of Democrats will vote for Taylor regardless (see 2010 CO gubernatorial results for comparison) and if they do Roberts has a shot to escape with a victory by taking a mere plurality of the vote. Partisan loyalties run deep, even among Kansas Democrats desperate for wins this cycle.