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.

Jay Cost says the Democrats’ deception is a smart game (substituting an independent for a Democrat, a party that has  not won a Senate seat in 82 years in the Jayhawk State) and could work.

Bottom line: Greg Orman is a Democrat running as an independent. So this is a variant of the game Democrats have been playing for years now, with an extra layer of deception: Find a candidate who can win over Republican voters in red states by talking about his independent-mindedness, and when he gets to Washington he’ll be there when you really need him. It’s “sneak it past the rubes” minus the party label.

Orman is as independent as Angus King in Maine, who routinely votes with Democrats and voted for Harry Reid for majority leader. King says he may switch allegiance if Republicans win a clear majority in 2014, and Orman has hinted at doing the same -- going with the winner. But if Orman’s choice determines the winner -- Republicans at 50, Democrats plus King and Vermont’s independent Bernie Sanders at 49 -- it is pretty clear where Orman will go, especially since Democrats are likely to pick up seats in 2016. This last point is the reason why Orman would likely caucus with Democrats even if Republicans win a slim  majority in 2014.

Now comes news that the defeated tea party candidate Milton Wolf, still clearly embittered by Roberts’ attacks on him, has offered to endorse Orman if Orman will commit to caucusing with Republicans if he wins .

This could turn out to be a clever move by Wolf. It is questionable whether Orman would really commit to such a move, and in any case, how could the party hold him to it? Jim Jeffords or Arlen Specter (the 60th vote for Obamacare) comes to mind. More likely, Orman will refuse. Then it becomes easier for Republicans to pin him as just another Obama-supporting card-carrying Democrat.

Democrats have many tough seats to defend in 2014 (North Carolina, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire), and injecting money to back Orman would be counter-productive, since it would make him appear significantly less independent. But a failure to take Wolf up on his offer could hurt Orman in the same way.

Republicans are sending in the cavalry. Bob Dole, the 91-year-old former Kansas senator and presidential nominee, and a man with immense class and respect in the state, has campaigned for Roberts. So has John McCain. Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush will all put in appearances. Roberts has been a notoriously weak and uninspired campaigner. The heavy lifting has to come from others.

The polls in this race are likely unstable, but if Republican efforts can not move the needle in the next few weeks, this race could become a much tougher haul. Republicans are already being badly outspent in most of the competitive Senate races, and money redirected for Kansas (a relatively inexpensive state to advertise in) still comes at a price by taking away resources from other contests, which may in a few weeks look like better opportunities (particularly Iowa and Colorado). If the efforts by big name Republicans and the negative attacks begin to work, then what happens to Greg Orman may remind some of what happened to Greg Norman at Augusta on one Sunday a few years back -- an apparent winner blowing the lead on the final day.

The lesson for Republicans after the ugly battles in Kansas and Mississippi is that maybe the Republican Party establishment needs to practice a kind of term-limits policing for some of its incumbents in order to avoid the very nasty primary fights that leave Republicans easier prey in the fall, and inject some fresh blood in the party. Serving in the Senate was never viewed by the founders as a lifetime job, like a Supreme Court justice. The state legislatures elected senators, so the advantages of incumbency in popular elections did not exist.  But being senator has started to mean a lifetime job for quite a few in both parties. After a while, the residents of a state sometimes wonder who is serving and whom is served.