ROELAND PARK, Kansas — The Senate race that could throw a wrench into Republican efforts to take control of the upper chamber now boils down to an independent candidate who just months ago seemed to have nothing more than a long-shot chance of winning the seat.
An Orman win Tuesday could play a crucial role for Democrats who have a narrow path forward to maintaining control of the U.S. Senate. But complicating the situation even more, Orman remains adamant that he is undecided on which party he will choose to caucus with — a procedural decision that could determine whether Democrats can keep their tenuous majority.
Using the final hours of sunlight to canvas a quiet residential neighborhood in a Kansas City suburb Monday, Orman said he doubts his refusal to announce which party he plans to align with will turn off voters.
“I understand that doing something new can be scary, but what frightens me most is more of the same,” Orman told msnbc. “It’s hard to imagine a system that gets worse.”
Orman emerged late September as a viable challenger to incumbent Roberts after the Democratic nominee abruptly withdrew his name from the ballot and dropped out of the race.
The independent has since made up significant ground in polls leading up to Election Day with a pitch that Roberts, who has served in Congress since 1981, is both a cog in Washington’s current dysfunction and out of touch with voters.
“We’ve seen years and years of inaction,” Orman said. “Voters are universally frustrated with the fact that nobody is getting enough done. They want to end the gridlock.”
Roberts for his part has sought to cast Orman as a Democrat cozy with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying his opponent’s pitch as an independent “sounds like a high school sophomore.”
In an interview with NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, Roberts, who garnered more than 60% of the vote in the last three elections, said his long tenure in office would not turn voters against him this election cycle.
“Well you just don’t take Peyton Manning out of the ball game I don’t think,” he said. “I’ve had a long record of achievement and working with many people in Kansas.”
Roberts has the power of the party establishment well behind him, with big-name surrogates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole touring the state to stump for both the Senate veteran and incumbent Kansas governor, Republican Sam Brownback.
Orman, by contrast, is largely on his own. Without a traditional party infrastructure to lean on for voter outreach efforts, Orman faces an uphill battle in turning out supporters Tuesday — particularly for a non-presidential election year.
But with Brownback on the ropes in his own tight re-election race, Democratic voters in Kansas say they are hopeful this election cycle will be a referendum on Republican incumbents in the traditionally deep-red state.
Talis Bermanis, 68, said Orman’s late surge as an independent was almost inevitable given voter disillusionment with both parties. But Bermanis said when given a choice, he knew which party Orman would eventually pick.
“I think from his past record — even though he hasn’t said — means he’ll caucus with the Democrats,” Bermanis said. “But that’s not to say he’s got to be lock-step with Democrats.”