The Washington Post

The Kansas Senate race presents Democrats with an opening — and an awkward dilemma

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) 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)

When Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) defeated a pesky tea party challenger earlier this month, it looked like the longtime senator extinguished the only real threat standing between him and a fourth term.

But with less than ten weeks until the election, Roberts, who endured a bruising primary, finds himself in an unexpectedly competitive race against a Democratic challenger and an independent who has emerged as a wild card. The close contest has presented Democrats with an intriguing, if delicate, opportunity to shift the race in their favor, and help themselves in the battle for the Senate majority.

Roberts’s Democratic challenger is Chad Taylor, a little-known Shawnee County district attorney who has waved off help from national Democrats, despite raising little money on his own. Independent candidate Greg Orman, a former Democrat who says he is open to aligning himself with either party in the Senate, has raised more money and has the potential to tap his personal wealth for further reinforcements. One recent automated survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Orman leading Roberts in a head to head race. In a two-man race against Taylor, Roberts led.

“I don’t see Taylor as being especially popular or capable of raising a fair amount of money,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

Leroy Towns, Roberts’s campaign manager, put it this way: “The senator likes to joke that he is one of the few that has two Democrats to put up with."

Therein lies the Democratic dilemma: Do they passively help Orman, as they did with now-Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in 2012 -- or perhaps more aggressively encourage Taylor to end his campaign? Or is neither option worth the risk, since Orman -- who also happens to be a former Republican -- could still caucus with GOP, if elected?

So far, national Democrats have not tipped their hand. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky declined to comment when asked how the committee views the race. Taylor’s campaign says he’s received no encouragement from the DSCC to exit. The DSCC has not deployed paid staff to Kansas, or run paid media efforts in the race.

But residual damage from the Republican primary, and a growing sense that Roberts has lost touch with his constituents, have added urgency to their decision-making. The PPP poll found Roberts’s approval rating startlingly low for an incumbent, at 27 percent.

Democrats are defending a fragile majority that Republicans can seize by gaining six seats in November. There are about a dozen races that look to factor into the majority. If Kansas is added to that mix, it could change both parties’ math.

Despite winning his primary, Roberts' campaign has been bumpy. He was dealt a blow in February when the New York Times reported that he pays rent to supporters to stay with them when he in Kansas, and is registered to vote at their address. That fueled attacks from tea party candidate Milton Wolf, who spent months arguing that Roberts had gone Washington.

Wolf, a flawed candidate who cracked jokes about X-ray images of graphic injuries on Facebook, was unable to topple Roberts. But observers say his attacks, and Roberts's rightward lurches to avoid getting outflanked, have left the senator in a tenuous position headed toward November.

“I think Milton Wolf did weaken him. I think he started out weaker than we gave him credit for,” said Loomis.

Roberts's campaign is not panicking. He still has a well-stocked war chest and the ability to raise a lot more money. Kansas, a very conservative state, has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s.

Towns, Roberts's campaign manager, attributes the close race to a crowded field.

“I think it’s kind of a new phenomenon in a race where you have three candidates. That is sort of uncharted waters," he said.

Taylor had a paltry $1,673 in his campaign account in mid-July. Orman, who had nearly $363,000, says the campaign is shaping up as a race between him and the senator. As of now, the anti-Roberts votes are likely to split between the two.

Orman, the founder of company that installs energy efficient lighting systems and the co-founder of an investment firm, entered the race in the summer. He briefly flirted with a run as a Democrat against Roberts last time the senator was up for re-election.

Campaign finance records show Orman has given to both Democrats and Republicans. He blames both parties for gridlock in Washington. He's dubbed himself "fiscally responsible and socially tolerant." And he won't reveal who he would caucus with -- other than to say he'd likely side with the majority party.

If the majority were to come down to him? He's leaving his options open.

"If I get elected, there's a reasonable chance neither party has a majority in the U.S. Senate," he said. "And if that's the case, what I would do is sit down with both parties and have a real frank discussion about the agenda they want to follow."

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."

Taylor is preaching fiscal prudence and loyalty to the agriculture industry. He says he agrees with “60 to 65 percent” of what Obama is doing, but opposes his views on domestic surveillance.

The Democrat says he has heard voters grouse for months that Roberts has lost touch with Kansas. “A lot of people were talking about how he’s been there too long, how he’s not a Kansan anymore,” said Taylor.

Determined to keep Washington Democrats at arm's length, Taylor penned a letter to DSCC Chairman Micheal Bennet (D-Colo.) in June asking the committee not to help him. Taylor's campaign says he not been encouraged by the DSCC to end his campaign. And he's shown no signs he's ready to pack it in.

State elections officials say that a Senate nominee who wants off the ballot needs to inform the state by Sept. 3 that they are unable to serve.

Another option for Democrats is to quietly elevate Orman. Democrats successfully navigated similarly tricky terrain in the 2012 Maine Senate race. When King, a popular independent former governor, emerged as a the clear frontrunner, the DSCC effectively ignored the Democratic nominee, clearing the way for King in a three-way race.

Even if Democrats don't meddle, the race could remain in doubt into the fall, possibly leading Republican groups to have to spend money in a state they hadn't initially factored into their budgets.

The Senate contest is unfolding alongside a closely watched governor’s race that both parties are competing hard to win. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has faced a severe backlash from moderate Republicans who reject his tax cuts and slashes to education spending. State Rep. Paul Davis (D) has a real chance of winning, polls show.

With most of the Democratic Party energy in Kansas trained on Davis, it's unclear how much ground support there will be for Taylor. Equally unclear is whether Orman can cobble together a large enough coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats without a party apparatus behind him.

As if there aren't enough variables in the race for strategists to keep track of, there is one more: Libertarian Party candidate Randall Batson. He's not expected to surpass single-digit support, but in a close race, he could matter.

Amid all the moving parts in the race, Orman is banking on a persistent national theme of the midterm campaign: widespread voter frustration with Washington.

"Ultimately they know that if we keep sending Republicans and Democrats back to Washington, we are going to continue to get the results we've been getting," he said.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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