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Sleeper In Kansas Might Upset Senate Election Calculus

Memo Pad Politics

Sleeper In Kansas Might Upset Senate Election Calculus


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 msanchez@kcstar.com.

Photo: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

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Mary Sanchez

Mary Sanchez has spent years covering immigration, schools, and other volatile beats for The Kansas City Star. She is now an editorial columnist for the Star, where she continues to offer insightful commentary on immigration, culture, and politics.

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  1. Dominick Vila September 16, 2014

    I don’t have a problem with Independents, even though most of the ones I know are Republicans in hiding, but I think it is a sad commentary when the best we can hope for is for a Democratic candidate to drop out of a race to help the chances of an Independent.
    I saw evidence of our horrendous demise in parts of the country when I voted in the primaries and noticed that almost half of the races were uncontested – insofar as Democrats running. If what is happening in red districts, such as the one where I live, is evidence of what is happening throughout the South and the Bible Belt, we are in deeper trouble than most of us think.
    The reason for this has nothing to do with the truth or facts, the opinion of voters in parts of the country are based strictly on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, gun control, and immigration reform, and since the Democratic party is identified as the organization that champions those causes their reaction is not surprising or unexpected.
    What hurts our chances in parts of their country will continue to help us in progressive parts of the country, with a likelihood of controlling the White House for generations to come, but our chances of controlling Congress, and the Supreme Court, are tenuous at best.

    1. sleepvark September 16, 2014

      No need to abandon hope just yet. Sometimes we Americans need a little time to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s been a-brewing for some time, the smell is starting to have an effect. The real question is . . . how much have we woken up.
      The teabagger blow hards (pun intended) have become booooringly repetitive, using the same tired old boogie men to induce fear in their far right wing religious base, fear that has been festering in their twisted panties for a long time now. Some of them may just be getting a little tired of such pusillanimous fears, and may be getting ready to take a more critical look at things than their faux news handlers are willing to allow.
      I for one have not given up on America yet.

  2. Marilyn September 16, 2014

    I was asked to make a presentation about a charity which I represent at an event honoring Sen. Roberts. Though I fervently hope that Roberts does not win, I went because I always want to promote the charity. I don’t know why I was asked unless it was some attempt to put a token charity on the program so that it could be said that Republicans care about poor people. Everyone except the senator was polite but not many showed any real interest in the poverty-stricken children. Sen. Roberts got up as I was speaking, walked in front of me to thank someone else across the room, walked back in front of me, and left. The other representative of our charity who was there was so offended by it that she probably won’t vote for him. As she said, “The first thing on the program that wasn’t all about him was not anything he wanted to spend time on.” He probably had to get home to Virginia or his Lazy Boy recliner in Wichita–whichever home he was claiming at the time. I am a Democrat and not a resident of KS so I couldn’t have voted for him if I had wanted to. However, the other woman with me is a KS resident and probably would have voted for him had he not been so rude.

    1. Kansan September 19, 2014

      What was the charity?

      I don’t think he’s simply rude. I think his mind is going, sooner than later.

  3. James Bowen September 16, 2014

    Being from Kansas, I don’t understand why all of a sudden people are so upset with Sen. Roberts. He has done a very good job representing the state in the Senate. I am concerned that anger over Sam Brownback’s policies are being associated with all Republicans. It is important to look at the candidate, not the party name.

    1. TZToronto September 17, 2014

      I beg to differ. Most people tend to separate their representatives (Senate and House) from the bulk of Congress. “Congress is horrible, but my Senator/Rep does good things for our state,” is the general attitude sentiment expressed. If any change is to come, those obstructing the business of the country must be sent packing–and those Senators and Representatives voting with the GOP need to be replaced, regardless of how wonderful them seem.

      1. James Bowen September 17, 2014

        “Vote the bums out” is never a wise philosophy. When that happens, they are typically replaced by novices who very susceptible to suggestion from corrupting influences. Sen. Roberts is one who does an excellent job representing the interests of his state and its citizens. Sen. Sessions from Alabama and Sen. Grassley from Iowa also do very good work.

    2. Kansan September 19, 2014

      Did you see the debate between Orman and Roberts at the state fair?

      Pat is clearly losing it. His performance was awful. His first answer wasn’t an answer to the question at all. Then, while his clock was ticking, he stood baffled trying desperately to gather his thoughts, then failing. When it was Orman’s turn to speak, on his own time, Roberts started hollering at him, over and over.

      I think he’s in the early stages of senility. We’re in real trouble if he gets reelected.

      1. James Bowen September 20, 2014

        Pat Roberts has done well for the state of Kansas and continues to do so. Orman is someone who is using his own fortune to buy the office. I can’t believe more people don’t realize that. He has not really given any specifics as to what he would support and oppose as a Senator, which tells me he is trying to come across as whatever we want him to be.

        1. Kansan September 20, 2014

          Roberts did a lot more for himself and his family than he did for the state. Even the many millions going toward the bio and agra defense facility and the Cerebral Palsy Center were a way to enrich his son Dave, the chief lobbyist for the projects.

          So the fact that his mind is going isn’t a consideration for you?

          1. James Bowen September 20, 2014

            I see no evidence that his mind is going. Not being a good speaker does not make one dumb or senile. When it comes to representing the state, I am not talking about bringing home the bacon. I am talking about supporting policies that help working people in Kansas and throughout the U.S. in general. He has been one of the most steadfast opponents of amnesty for illegal aliens and immigration increases which the plutocrats and big business so desperately crave.

          2. Kansan September 20, 2014

            Robert Byrd, at 94 years old, was way sharper than Roberts. John Paul Stevens, at 90 or so, is way sharper than Roberts.

            I shouldn’t compare him to them, both of whom were possessed of prodigious intellects.

            I hope you would watch the debate. Orman was anything but perfect, but Roberts was pitiful. I don’t expect to be represented by Demosthenes, but Roberts seemed possessed by a Rick Perry-sized brain fart every time it was his turn to speak. The first answer he gave wasn’t remotely related to the question. Then, when Orman was speaking he loudly and rudely interrupted each time.

            It was outrageous. I’m reminded of General or Admiral What’s his face, when he was speaking as Ross Perot’s VP choice on the Reform Party ticket in ’92.

            “Who am I and what am I doing here?,” he asked the crowd. The audience broke up, but were concerned that he would be able to find his way home without help.

          3. James Bowen September 21, 2014

            There is no higher compliment than to be compared to Vice Admiral James Stockdale. That man was tortured mercilessly and he never broke. He was also a brilliant man. Public presentation skills are no indication of intellect.

            As for Pat Roberts, he has looked out for the people of Kansas (and the rest of the U.S. for that matter), and as far as I am concerned that means he should be re-elected. For some reason, the press has decided they don’t like him and have been after him for months. A year ago they were speculating that Kris Kobach might challenge him–something that makes no sense whatsoever given their common concerns and agreement on many issues. Greg Orman is a rich businessman whom I suspect is trying to buy the office with his own fortune, and is being vague on the specific issues. I can’t for the life of me believe that people are being taken in by him.

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