Kansas just threw a huge wrench in the GOP’s Senate majority math


Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), right, speaks to a Kansas Republican Party rally, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, at the party's headquarters in Topeka, Kan. To his left is Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Kansas hasn't elected a Democratic senator since the 1930s.

That apparently will not change this year, after Democratic nominee Chad Taylor abruptly dropped out of the state's Senate race Wednesday. But the exit could open the door to Democrats -- or, at the very least, increases the chances that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) will become the most unexpected incumbent to lose reelection this November.

Strange things are happening in the Sunflower State, as shown by Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) apparent underdog status against Democrat Paul Davis. That upheaval has quietly made its way into the Senate race now, with multiple polls showing Roberts emerging from his sub-50-percent primary showing with a shockingly tough general election ahead of him.

While we don't yet have any high-quality polls, two automated polls from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling and GOP-leaning Rasmussen Reports both showed Roberts leading Taylor by just four points -- and well under 50 percent again. And PPP showed him leading Taylor by just seven in a three-way race with well-funded independent candidate Greg Orman.

Either scenario, it seemed, could be problematic for the incumbent.

Well, if those match-ups were problematic, then a two-way race with Orman could be really worrisome for Roberts. Taylor, after all, wasn't really raising much money for his campaign, and the PPP poll showed Orman leading Roberts by 10 points in that highly hypothetical two-way match-up. Today, though, the highly hypothetical could be reality.

The big questions from here are:

1) Whether the polls are accurate

2) Whether Orman aligns with Democrats

3) What happens on the ballot

No. 1, we discussed above. As for No.2, Democrats are the party whose nomination Orman briefly sought in the 2008 Senate race against Roberts, and it was pretty clear that they were angling for Taylor to drop out. But it's not clear Orman, who has also aligned with the GOP in the past, will become the de facto Democrat in the race, and he has said he's not sure which side he would caucus with in the Senate.

The situation harkens back in a big way to now-Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in the 2012 Maine Senate race. King, a former governor, also had past loyalties to both sides, but it was clear from how the race shaped up that Democrats had a real interest in him winning and then (unsurprisingly) caucusing with them. And despite King keeping his powder dry publicly through Election Day, that's precisely what happened.

For Orman, King's example might be instructive. Orman was raising good money without a party apparatus behind him. He raised more than $600,000 last quarter, with a little self-funding tacked on top. And aligning with Democrats in ruby-red Kansas isn't without its pitfalls -- particularly if he wants to win a second term in six years.

Orman has been understandably anxious about appearing to side with the blue team, even balking at saying whom he picked for president in 2008 and 2012:

In a telephone interview, Orman said he voted for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But he didn't volunteer that information quickly.

"Do you mind if I get back to you on that?" he initially told a reporter, adding that he was deciding "whether you are entitled to the answer."

But Roberts's campaign is already tying the exit of Orman to Democrats -- a not-to-tacit attempt to make this a straight D-vs.-R race that is more favorable to a Kansas Republican.

Orman's choice is between independence and less money or picking a side and getting some backup. Heck, given the lack of a Democratic nominee, he could say he would caucus with Republicans and still have a pretty good path to victory, if the PPP poll is to be believed.

But if Democrats, who are also targeting Kentucky and Georgia, can secure his loyalty, they will amazingly have a third good pickup opportunity in another very red state. And that would significantly throw off the GOP's majority-making math.

Will that happen? Well, the No. 3 item on our list could provide an indication. That's because there remains a real question about whether Taylor's name will be removed from the ballot, as The Hill's Alexandra Jaffe reports:

One statute declares that, except under specific circumstances, “no person who has been nominated by any means for any national, state, county or township office may” withdraw their name from the ballot after Primary Day.

Those circumstances include death, and if a nominee “declares that they are incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected…by a request in writing.” 

While Taylor did submit a request in writing to the secretary of State’s office withdrawing his nomination and asking to be withdrawn from the ballot pursuant to that same statute, the letter makes no claim that the candidate would be unable to fulfill his duties if elected.

But if the secretary of State does decide that Taylor’s name can be removed from the ballot, Democrats may still need to put up a candidate to replace him. A second statute declares that “when a vacancy occurs after a primary election in a party candidacy, such vacancy shall be filled by the party committee of the congressional district, county or state, as the case may be.”

Which means we could be headed for something of a legal dispute -- both about whether Taylor can be removed from the ballot and, if so, whether he has to be replaced with another candidate (who would potentially take votes from Orman).

If Democrats push for Taylor's removal and/or for leaving the ballot line blank, it will be pretty clear whose side they think Orman is on.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · September 4