The good news for Republicans worried about holding onto Senator Pat Roberts’ suddenly competitive seat in Kansas: Things probably can’t get much worse than they are now.
With Democratic Chad Taylor out of the campaign (although possibly still on the ballot), independent candidate Greg Orman looks like a strong contender based on the available polling. Roberts, 78, won only 48% of the vote against a weak scandal-plagued primary opponent after questions arose over whether the senator lived in the state. Polls in August showed Roberts holding onto a weak lead in a three-way race with Taylor and Orman splitting the opposition and a Public Policy Polling survey gave Orman a 43-33 lead in a two-way matchup.
Orman, however, hasn’t faced any real challenge up to this point mainly because Roberts and his campaign have been AWOL, apparently content that the state's heavy Republican tilt would carry them to victory like a gentle breeze. After the primary, Roberts returned “back home” to Virginia for most of August, as his campaign manager Leroy Towns put it to the Wichita Eagle, and the campaign failed to run ads during the month-long recess, leaving Orman free to air his own TV spots unchallenged.
Faced with a tossup election that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in a deep red state, national Republicans are moving to right the ship.
Towns, a longtime Roberts aide going back to his first House campaign in 1980, resigned this week, according to the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. While it’s not clear who his replacement is yet, the National Republican Senatorial Committee reportedly dispatched veteran consultant Chris LaCivita to Kansas to give the campaign an emergency makeover.
They don’t have much time. The first Senate debate of the election is on Saturday, giving Orman a high-profile opportunity to build momentum against Roberts while his candidacy is still in flux.
After the debate, however, Orman will almost certainly face a barrage of well-financed attack ads from GOP and conservative groups, now wide awake to the threat he presents to their hoped-for Senate majority.
In a preview of what the onslaught might look like, Towns responded to Taylor’s departure by accusing Orman of a “corrupt bargain” with Democrats that “makes clear what has been obvious from the start: Orman is the choice of liberal Democrats and he can no longer hide behind an independent smokescreen.”
To be clear, there is no indication Orman – who boasts endorsements from dozens of prominent Republicans in the state -- has coordinated his campaign with national Democrats and he has not said which party he would caucus with if elected. Orman’s campaign site describes his political evolution in detail, from a young staffer on George H.W. Bush’s campaign, to a Ross Perot independent, to a disillusioned George W. Bush voter, to Democratic Senate prospect, and to an independent once again.
"I hold both sides equally accountable," he told the Washington Post.
The question now is whether that carefully honed independence can survive the inevitable scrutiny of Orman’s positions, which include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, from the right.
Democrats, who are still working to make sure Taylor’s name is off the ballot in November, are keeping their distance for now. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not gotten involved in the race nor did they respond to questions from msnbc about whether they might in the future. Democratic opposition research firm American Bridge recently deployed a tracker to follow Roberts at public events and intends to keep it up even with Taylor out of the race.
But in the Citizens United era, national Democrats don’t need to make their support explicit. Their top donors could just as easily pour money into a new super PAC or anonymously funded non-profit targeting Roberts.
“If national Democrats run positive ads on Orman’s behalf, they would risk tainting him with independents and disaffected Republicans. But Democrats could run anti-Roberts ads with less of a connection to Orman but still be helpful to the cause,” Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report wrote in a post on the race.
Gonzales described Roberts as “the most vulnerable Republican Senator in the country” and election analysts tend to agree. But they’re not writing him off yet either. Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics still rates the race “Leans Republican” based on the expectation Roberts will receive heavy outside support. Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst at nonpartisan election watcher Cook Political Report, still rates Roberts the favorite as well, albeit an embattled one.