There was a major shake-up in the Kansas Senate race. Or was there?

September 4

In this Aug. 13, 2014, file photo, Chad Taylor, Kansas Democrats’ nominee for the U.S. Senate, discusses his campaign during an interview on the Statehouse grounds in Topeka, Kan. Taylor sent a letter to the Kansas secretary of state, withdrawing from the race on Sept. 3, 2014. The race also has a viable independent candidate, Olathe businessman Greg Orman, as well as a Libertarian candidate, Randall Batson, of Wichita . (AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

The Democratic Senate candidate in Kansas, Chad Taylor, has dropped out of the race, leaving Republican incumbent Pat Roberts to face an independent candidate, Greg Orman.  What does that mean for the race and for the chances that the Democrats or Republicans will control a Senate majority in November?

Clearly, with so much in flux at the moment, it is too early to say anything definitive.  But here are a couple scenarios.

Scenario #1: It hurts Roberts.  Based on the fundamentals in our Election Lab model, this race should be an easy one for Roberts. He’s an incumbent running in a red state in a midterm election when the opposite party controls the White House.  Based on the fundamentals alone, our model gives Roberts a 99 percent chance of winning.  But, perhaps because of the challenges Roberts has faced this year, his lead over Taylor in head-to-head polls has recently been in the single digits, and our forecast gave Roberts a lower chance of winning (89 percent) than the fundamentals alone would predict.  As Nate Silver notes, Orman has raised more money than Taylor, and could self-finance his own campaign.  And a PPP poll suggests that Orman has a 10-point lead over Roberts in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up.  Perhaps Roberts will be more vulnerable.

Scenario #2: It doesn’t hurt Roberts all that much. Orman may not be a good fit for Kansas. He ran as a Democrat in 2008.  Based on these data from Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica, he seems to be left-of-center.  It’s entirely possible that he won’t poll that well against Roberts if he becomes the focus of attacks by Roberts and others.  In other words, the PPP poll may not indicate where the race stands now or will stand soon.

Scenario #3: Orman wins but it doesn’t much affect who controls the Senate. Orman has not indicated which party he would caucus with if elected.  He suggested that he would caucus with the majority party.  So if the GOP or Democrats win an outright majority regardless of the Kansas outcome, Ormon’s election wouldn’t determine Senate control.  His election would matter most if the GOP won 50 seats and the Democrats won 49 — allowing Orman to decide who would have the majority (since the Democrats could control the Senate with 50 votes, given Biden’s role as tie-breaker).  But even in that scenario, it may be unlikely that Orman would caucus with Democrats.  He will have to be reelected in a fairly red state, so it could make sense to caucus with Republicans.

Here’s a little thought experiment.  Assume that Orman and Roberts each have a 50 percent chance of winning.  Assume also that Orman has a 50 percent chance of caucusing with the Democrats and a 50 percent chance of causing with the Republicans. What does this mean for party control of the Senate?  If Roberts wins (a 50 percent chance) he will caucus with the Republicans.  And, if Orman wins (a 50 percent chance) the odds are 50-50 that he’ll caucus with the Republicans.

So, until more information becomes available — like polls or public statements from the Orman campaign about his intentions if he wins — a rough estimate is that the Democrats have a 25 percent chance of “winning” the Kansas seat (a 50 percent chance that Orman wins multipled by a 50 percent chance that he caucuses with the Democrats if he wins).  Republicans retain a 75 percent chance.

On the one hand, 25 percent for the Democrats are not very good odds.  On the other hand, 25 percent is significantly better than the estimates we (and everyone else) were giving the Democrats on Wednesday. If this 25 percent figure is correct, then it would increase Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the Senate (and reduce Republicans’ chances) by about three points, according to our model.  That is not nothing, but it is less than some other estimates of how Taylor’s decision affects each party’s chances of winning a Senate majority.

Of course, this is just a thought experiment.  There is a lot that needs to be clarified, and not only in the polls.  Consider this from the Topeka Capital-Journal:

Staff in Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office indicated Wednesday night that Taylor’s name would be retained on the candidate list until legal issues related to his withdrawal could be studied. Apparently, there is uncertainty that Taylor’s affidavit met requirements of state law to renounce a nomination. Another question centers on whether the Kansas Democratic Party must select a replacement or leave the ballot blank.

In short, it’s far too early to make confident claims about whether and how the Kansas Senate race has changed.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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