Bleeding Kansas

Republican chances to win control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, requiring a pickup of six seats, have taken a blow. Kansas, a state no one considered anything other than a safe hold for the party a few months ago, now appears to be slipping away.

After a contentious primary resulting in a victory for the 78-year incumbent Pat Roberts over tea party challenger Milton Wolf, things have gone steadily south for Roberts. Wolf refused to close ranks and endorse Roberts. A self-funded independent, 45-year-old Greg Orman, has now opened up a solid lead over Roberts after Chad Taylor, the Democrat,  withdrew from the race, trailing badly in third place. As expected, polls that had shown Roberts narrowly ahead in a three-man race, transformed into a 5-10-point Orman  lead with Taylor no longer part of the polling survey .

The Kansas secretary of State attempted to prevent Taylor’s name from being removed from the ballot,  since the law allows for this only when the candidate dies or has a  physical disability preventing him from running, and Taylor fits neither profile. But this maneuver was challenged by Democrats and lost in court. Republicans are now trying to force Democrats to replace Taylor on the ballot, but that gesture  will probably also prove unsuccessful, and worse, smacks of a  near complete lack of confidence in Roberts’ chances to win straight up.

Roberts has come under attack for many of the same things as Mary Landrieu in Louisiana -- for effectively  becoming a Washington, D. C., senator, and not a senator of the state. There have been questions about Roberts’ legal residence and time spent in the state, just as with Landrieu. These issues, plus his age and long tenure in  Congress  (16 years in the House, and now 18 in the Senate), as well as  accusations of being a big spending, go-along senator, were primary reasons why Roberts faced his first serious primary challenge in years.

Now the plot has thickened. Orman, who has largely escaped serious scrutiny so far, is feeling the first pushback from national Republicans, desperate to preserve the seat in the GOP column. His business relationship with a jailed Goldman Sachs banker and former board member, Rajat Gupta, is the first hit.  Roberts went on offense in similar fashion against Wolf in the primary fight, accusing his radiologist opponent of being dishonest and unethical.

The bitterness of the primary contest, combined with Roberts' declining approval in the state, is the reason why many Republicans have so far not come back into the fold and appear to prefer the independent Orman. Mississippi had a similarly bitter Republican Senate primary this year, but the race there remains Republican versus Democrat,without a significant independent in the November field. In  Mississippi, whites tend to vote Republican, and the state’s sizable black population always votes Democratic in even greater percentage numbers. With the current white/black split in the state, Republicans win.

In Kansas, the GOP appears to have a few approaches to bringing Orman’s numbers down to earth.  Orman has refused to say which party he will caucus with if he wins, but his indecision about whether he is more likely to be with Republicans than Democrats has almost no credibility at this point. Orman has contributed almost exclusively to Democrats in the past, and some of  his policy positions (favoring a path for citizenship for illegals, arguing Obamacare will never be repealed so move on to other issues, supporting abortion rights) are about as unpopular in Kansas as President Obama himself. If Republican voters are forced to choose between a Senate controlled by Obama loyalists or one controlled by  Republicans who can push back against the White House, the hope is that that choice will trump the voters’ unhappiness with Roberts and lead to a hold-your-nose vote for him one more time. George Will argues that Orman would increase the intellectual wattage of the Senate, but at a price of keeping Harry Reid in power.