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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Let’s go out on a limb and predict that a Republican majority will retake the Senate in November’s elections. After all, Nate Silver, the paragon of quantitative journalism, puts the party’s chances of doing so at 62.6 percent.

On second thought, let’s not. As even Silver would admit, there’s plenty of room for unforeseen events. Recall that in the summer of 2012, the GOP was crowing about an incipient Senate takeover. Then the Republican Senate nominee for Missouri, Todd Akin, unleashed his insipid “legitimate rape” comment. Akin professed that women’s bodies can magically resist being impregnated from a violent rape.

Not to be outdone, the GOP favorite in Indiana’s race, Richard Mourdock, declared that he opposed aborting pregnancies conceived in rape because “it is something that God intended to happen.”

The backlash caused other Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to dash for cover. Voters with at least a grade-school understanding of female anatomy and a molecule of respect for women helped Democrat Claire McCaskill retain her Senate seat in Missouri and helped Joe Donnelly of Indiana win a new one. Those victories, along with a couple of lucky breaks in tossup races, actually gained seats for the Democratic majority.

So will the buffoon factor bedevil the GOP again this year, and will Lady Luck smile once more on the Dems? We’ve had no rhetorical missteps yet, and one imagines the Republican central command has campaign staffs on DEFCON 3 alert against candidate gaseousness. But the Democrats might get their first lucky break in Kansas, of all places.

Although Kansas is about as red as a state can be — it last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1932 — its voters might just throw out a Republican senator in November. The incumbent, Sen. Pat Roberts, is not particularly popular at the moment, despite having served in Congress since 1981. But the twist nobody saw coming is the popularity of an independent challenger, Greg Orman, who is currently polling neck-and-neck with Roberts.

Orman has never held an elected office outside of the American Legion’s Boys State in high school. But the entrepreneur and private equity financier has considerable personal appeal, loads of money and a discontented electorate looking for alternatives. His polling is so good that the hapless Democrat in the race is begging to drop out.

The story is almost too comical to believe. Democrat Chad Taylor has petitioned the Kansas Supreme Court for permission to be dropped from the ballot. A virtual unknown who has raised measly amounts of campaign money, Taylor must have known all along his chances were nil. In light of Orman’s surging popularity, he wrote a letter to the secretary of state’s office to withdraw from the ballot. The decision was cheered, and quite possibly coerced, by his party. Though he has dabbled with both parties, Orman is left of center on most issues and would be a fair bet to caucus with the Democrats.

Enter Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, stomping his foot declaring that No, no, no! — the Democrat may not just up and leave the campaign trail. Kobach maintained that, under state law, if he wishes to be dropped from the ballot Taylor must to demonstrate that he is “incapable” of serving.

Kobach, it should be noted, is a major player in national right-wingerdom. In a state known for rock-ribbed conservatism, he’s considered a bit of a zealot. He also happens to be a member of Roberts’ honorary campaign committee. He’s got skin in the game. As Senate races go, Kansas should be an easy one for the GOP, and Kobach’s job is to see that it stays that way by keeping it a three-way contest. Ultimately, the court will decide.

It’s possible that Orman will continue to pull ahead in polling. He’s trending upward, one point ahead in the latest poll. Roberts appears to be holding steady — at this writing. Everything is fluid in Kansas these days.

Could Orman pull off an upset even with Taylor on the ballot? Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Kansas voters only have to look across the state line for an example.

Missouri elected a dead man to the U.S. Senate in 2000. Former Gov. Mel Carnahan was in a tight race against the incumbent, John Ashcroft. But Carnahan died in an airplane crash weeks before the election. But his campaign kept at it and Carnahan won. (His widow was appointed to take the seat.)

Stay tuned. There’s no such thing as a sure bet in the Heartland, and how the chips fall in Kansas might have a decisive influence on the balance of power in Washington for the next two years.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at [email protected]

Photo: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

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