Friday, September 05, 2014

Ranting On...the Kansas Senate Race

Greg Orman (I-KS)
Was there any other choice for the Friday rant than making sense of what is going on the Sunflower State?  Seriously, every Autumn there is at least one Senate race that randomly becomes competitive, but I did not expect it to be Kansas.  And yet here we are, with Sen. Pat Roberts basically losing control over his campaign to the NRSC, the Democrat dropping out, and everyone in Washington left wondering what a random businessman from Mankato, Minnesota's intentions are.  Because at this rate, he may be deciding who will run the Senate.

There are a lot of questions to ask here, and I'm going to recap my thoughts on the most pertinent ones below.  This is a growing story, and a lot of these questions could be answered in the next few days, but we'll go over the big three below.  Before we do that, though, for those of you who have not been paying attention to this political earthquake, I'll give you a little primer.  The Senate race in Kansas has been a bit of a sleeper race through the summer, and as we've outlined previously on the blog, the gubernatorial race has been very competitive for the Democrats and at this point one might almost call Paul Davis the frontrunner.  Then, this past week amidst polls that showed the Senate race tightening, the Democratic nominee dropped out and endorsed Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman who has been running well in polls and has raised significantly more money.  (Admittedly limited) polling has suggested that Orman may in fact be ahead of political institution Pat Roberts, who has been in Washington for 35 years but seems to have become sincerely out-of-touch with his constituency.  And now that you're caught up, here are the three big questions.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS)
1. What was Pat Roberts thinking?

The first and best question is how the hell did this race become competitive in the first place?  This is the reddest of the red states.  Still though, if reports are to be believed, Pat Roberts, who despite having a Christine O'Donnell-level opponent in the primary couldn't manage to hit 50%, has apparently not run one campaign ad despite polling suggesting a close race.

Perhaps it was because no one legitimately thought a Democrat could win a race in this environment for a Republican-held seat.  It's not a bad thought process.  The last time Kansas voted against the GOP for the Senate Herbert Hoover was President.  Comparable races in Georgia or Kentucky aren't particularly competitive anymore.  Michelle Nunn has struggled since David Perdue won the primary, and only the most partisan of observers wouldn't note that Mitch McConnell has taken the lead over Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.  Roberts, though, didn't listen to his close call in the primary like Perdue, McConnell, and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran did.  While those three men have been campaigning vigorously coming out of their competitive primaries, making sure to take no vote for granted even in their red states, Roberts has been running a poor campaign and has made limited stops across Kansas while Orman has been on the air and frequenting locales across the state.  I don't know if it's because he assumed he was safe or if the 78-year-old senator just doesn't have the stamina to run a race at this level, but he thought he'd coast to the general, which he certainly cannot do now.

2. Is this good news for the Democrats?

There is no doubt in anyone's minds that this is bad news for the Republicans.  Roberts has essentially handed his campaign operation over to the Washington GOP, and has an NRSC official coming in to advise his campaign and force him to run expensive ads and spend as much time glad-handing as possible.  Already you can see the teeth are out for Orman, whom Roberts is calling a liberal, but this is a complication that the Republicans didn't want and cannot really afford right now.  The NRSC has six extremely competitive races that they need to win three of (AR, AK, LA, IA, NC, and CO), and was hoping to expand the map a bit into New Hampshire or Minnesota this fall, which may be more and more of a pipe dream (small tangent-what is with all of the gaffes coming out of Scott Brown's mouth-sound off on that in the comments if you have a theory?).  With Kansas now in play, that means that New Hampshire and Minnesota probably go bye-bye for the GOP.

The real question, though, is what this means for the Democrats.  Despite the Democrats likely being behind Chad Taylor dropping out (the rumors are that Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri talked Taylor out of running-not sure what McCaskill's angle is here, but if she's gotten private assurances that Orman would sit with the Democrats, that's a pretty ballsy and terrific political move) and that Orman has recently run as a Democrat in a Senate primary, publicly Orman has not stated which side he will sit with, and though I loathe waiting for information, he'd be a fool if he said either way.  Saying he'd sit with the Republicans will dampen Democratic turnout and surely cost him the election (Democrats aren't in the majority in Kansas, but they're going to have to be a major part of his coalition), whereas saying he'd sit with the Democrats would wipe away a lot of the Independent goodwill that he has.  He'll likely model his campaign after Maine Sen. Angus King, whom Harry Reid is surely begging to come down to campaign with Orman as a way to court his favor.

Orman has stated that he will sit with whomever is in the majority (a comment King also has made in the past, though he backtracked on it), and that he wouldn't support either of the Senate leaders (which could put him in an odd situation, as the only way either leader is going anywhere is if Mitch McConnell loses reelection), but for now it seems like this is a "wait and see" if it's good news for the Democrats in the Senate math for January.  If Orman wins and he is the deciding vote, my gut says he goes with the Democrats but is a loose cannon in terms of whip counts.  The more important thing for Democrats is that this likely takes some support and money away from Republicans that they would like to be spending in a different state where they're playing offense.

3. What should we look for now?

The narrative of the race seems pretty clear going forward: Roberts will campaign Orman as a Democrat in disguise and Orman will call Roberts out of touch and say that Washington needs more independent voices.  The real things to look for, however, aren't quite as obvious.

First and foremost, because he is an independent, Orman has not been vetted by the major parties, and even the most vetted of candidates have skeletons (anyone remember John Walsh?).  In the coming days the Right will be scrounging for any nugget in Orman's closet, and if he has a lot of them, then this race becomes interesting but not part of the Senate math.  The reality is that Roberts still has the upper-hand from a pragmatic standpoint (he has a national organization to fall back on and is the longtime incumbent), and until we make it through our "getting to know you" phase with Orman and see some more polling, I'm not changing my mind about that.

The other thing to really watch for is spending and campaigning, and who is doing it.  While national Democrats won't descend on the state, watch to see if the DSCC puts out anti-Roberts ads or if either Democratic nominee for governor Paul Davis or independent Sen. Angus King of Maine make a trek to Kansas-this would indicate that national Democrats are confident that Orman would caucus with them. Also watch for if Mitt Romney or Rand Paul or other major profile Republicans are out stumping for Roberts.  This will give you an indication that internal polling is showing Roberts is vulnerable.

All-in-all, though, this is by far the most interesting thing to happen in an increasingly unknown battle for the Senate this year.  If it continues to be close, we'll certainly continue to follow it, but in the meantime-any hypotheses on how Kansas turns out in November?

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