It's too soon to say with confidence what will happen in Kansas' unexpectedly wild U.S. Senate race, but if independent Greg Orman prevails, both parties will be eager to have his support in the narrowly divided chamber.
At least, that would make sense in theory. Republicans seem to be eager to burn this bridge
before it's even built.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the independent challenger to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) would not caucus with Senate Republicans if the GOP takes over the upper chamber's majority. "It is an impossibility. It is not possible," Priebus told Kansas City's 41 Action News. He called the idea that independent Greg Orman might work with Republican leadership in the Senate "ridiculous."
It's easy to understand why the RNC chairman is saying this. If Kansas voters are led to believe they might end up with a Republican senator no matter whom they vote for, they might just support the more likable person -- or worse from the Republicans' perspective, the party's voters might just stay home, unconcerned with the outcome.
But this is going to get tricky if Orman prevails and the Senate majority is on the line. Presumably, Republican leaders would then sheepishly approach the Kansas independent, asking, "Remember all of those times we attacked you? Remember when we said the idea of you caucusing with us was 'ridiculous'? That's all toxic water under the bridge."
Of course, it's not just Orman. What if former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, running as an independent in his home state of South Dakota, also wins? He hasn't officially declared his intentions, though he said
this week he would be a "friend" to President Obama and a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, which might rule out Pressler caucusing with Republicans.
And what if both Orman and Pressler win and arrive on Capitol Hill as the political equivalent of a free agent? At a minimum, we'd see a congressional landscape with no modern precedent.
It's not that Senate independents are unheard of -- there are two right now. Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King caucus with Democrats, and tend to vote with the party, but they're technically not affiliated with Dems. The same was true of former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran as an independent before his final term before retirement.
But if Sanders and King are joined by two more independents, the new total may not sound like a lot, but Russell Berman reported
this week that it would be a historic development.
"Usually there are no more than two in a Congress," said Donald Ritchie, the Senate's historian. According to records kept by Ritchie's office, the Senate hasn't seen four independent or third-party members serving together since the 1890s, with the exception of a brief period in the late 1930s when an independent and a Progressive served alongside two senators from Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party before it merged with the Democrats. Victories by Orman and Pressler could have significant ramifications for the balance of power in a chamber that is expected to be closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
The reason independents have to pick a party to caucus with is largely procedural -- party leaders choose committee assignments, and a senator with no caucus would probably end up with very little to do all day.
But in a narrowly divided Senate, four independents could create a situation in which neither party has a pure majority, giving these independents a great deal of influence. There was even some scuttlebutt this week that a group of indies that could reach out to members like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, a relatively moderate Republican, to create an entirely distinct caucus, separate from the two major parties, leaving no one with a majority. (Say hello to Harry Reid, the Senate Plurality Leader?)
It's probably best not to jump to too many conclusions just yet. Orman and/or Pressler may come up short; one or both of them may want to caucus with one of the major parties; Bernie Sanders may very well have more in common with Democrats than an unrelated group of center-right independents; etc.
But for now, the speculation is kind of fun, isn't it?