There's no shortage of competitive U.S. Senate races to watch this year, and with control of the chamber on the line, the stakes are obviously very high. But arguably the most interesting race is one that few even considered when the 2014 cycle got underway.
The political landscape in Kansas is already unexpectedly volatile, with incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback (R) struggling badly in his bid for a second term, despite Kansas' ruby-red reputation. But more striking still is longtime incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who was assumed to be a shoo in, but who finds himself in a messy contest.
After narrowly avoiding a primary upset against a political novice, the 78-year-old incumbent, who's been in Congress for over three decades and who no longer owns a home in the state he represents, is in a close, four-way contest. The latest PPP poll
found Roberts ahead with 32%, followed by Democrat Chad Taylor at 25%, independent Greg Orman at 23%, and Libertarian Randall Batson at 3%.
In case it's not obvious, when a multi-term Republican incumbent is polling at 32% -- in a red state, in a strong year for the GOP -- he has a problem.
The question is what Democrats can and should do about it. Sean Sullivan explained today
that the unexpected circumstances have presented Dems "with an intriguing, if delicate, opportunity to shift the race in their favor, and help themselves in the battle for the Senate majority."
Roberts's Democratic challenger is Chad Taylor, a little-known Shawnee County district attorney who has waved off help from national Democrats, despite raising little money on his own. Independent candidate Greg Orman, a former Democrat who says he is open to aligning himself with either party in the Senate, has raised more money and has the potential to tap his personal wealth for further reinforcements. [...] Therein lies the Democratic dilemma: Do they passively help Orman, as they did with now-Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in 2012 -- or perhaps more aggressively encourage Taylor to end his campaign? Or is neither option worth the risk, since Orman -- who also happens to be a former Republican -- could still caucus with GOP, if elected?
This isn't an easy call.
That said, Sam Wang made a compelling case
this week that Democrats would be better off pushing their own candidate aside and rolling the dice on Orman (thanks to my colleague Kate Osborn for the heads-up).
Orman's formula seems to be working with Kansas voters. Despite the fact that thirty per cent of voters still have not heard of him, a recent Public Policy Polling survey shows that in a one-on-one matchup, Roberts would lose by ten percentage points, forty-three to thirty-three. In contrast, Roberts would survive a one-on-one matchup with Taylor by a margin of four points. So if you're Roberts, you either want Taylor and Orman to split the vote, or to run against Taylor alone. This means that, paradoxically, Pat Roberts's political future may depend on his Democratic opponent staying in the race. And that, in turn, affects the balance of power in the closely contested Senate -- by converting a Republican seat into an independent one.
Obviously, Democrats wouldn't have any guarantees about what kind of senator Orman would be. But Dems also know Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since FDR was in the White House, and they know exactly what they'd get with Pat Roberts, namely another six years of a doctrinaire Republican who goes along with his party on practically everything.
Keep an eye on this one. What happens in Kansas may very well decide which party has the Senate majority in 2015 and 2016.