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Orman hiring of former DSCC hand highlights personnel predicament

In this July 28, 2014, file photo, Greg Orman, right, an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kansas, discusses his campaign during a news conference, as his wife, Sybil, watches to his left in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

For the last three weeks, Republicans have scrutinized and criticized Greg Orman's political past. Now they're doing the same to his political present, looking for any sign of prior partisan leanings in his major supporters and campaign hires.

And that's usually a given among any seasoned campaign hand. So the independent Senate contender's hiring of a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staffer as his new spokesman set off a fresh round of grousing from Republican strategists claiming the move as evidence he is a Democratic stooge masquerading as a nonpartisan trailblazer.

For Orman, who is looking to unseat Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the episode highlights a unique staffing complication: The normally routine process of building a campaign team is fraught with political peril for the candidate and his aides.

The former Democrat and Republican is running as an outside-the-box alternative to Roberts who is not beholden to the political parties he claims to have left behind. But finding savvy, experienced campaign strategists with no ties, past or present, to a major party is next to impossible.

One of Orman's most recent additions is Mike Phillips, the former DSCC hand who also worked on the 2010 campaign of now-DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet (C0lo.).

With speculation swirling that national Democrats engineered an elaborate plot to elevate Orman by coaxing Democratic nominee Chad Taylor out of the race, Republicans used the hiring of Phillips to remind voters about the possibility of major meddling from D.C.

"Chad Taylor's lawyer was top DSCC lawyer. Greg Orman's spox a fmr top staffer to DSCC Chairman. Notice a trend?" tweeted National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring on Monday. Taylor's effort to get off the ballot was spearheaded by a legal team that included Marc Elias, whose firm has represented the DSCC.

Phillips, an Orman campaign spokesman, said he did not talk to the DSCC or the Taylor campaign about joining Orman's team, and decided to jump onboard on his own. He referred a reporter to a statement from the Orman campaign's other spokesman, Sam Edelen, when pressed for more about his thinking.

"It’s no secret that Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike are working for and supporting Greg’s campaign because he’s focused on solving problems and not playing partisan politics," said Edelen.

In response to a tweet from Republican strategist Tim Miller spotlighting Phillips's Democratic ties, Phillips said he was part of a "bi-partisan" team with Edelen -- whom, he noted, had worked on Republican Zach Wamp's campaign for governor of Tennessee in 2010. Edelen has also worked on other GOP campaigns.

Orman's pollster is Dave Beattie, a Democrat. His campaign manager is Jim Jonas, who has been a consultant to Republican presidential campaigns and the Republican National Committee.

Republicans on Orman's team are risking alienation from the GOP establishment by opposing Roberts. Typically, the kind of strategists who aren't afraid of flouting the establishment are the tea party-aligned hands who sign on with insurgent hard-right challengers. But Orman does not fit the tea party mold, and neither do his aides.

For Republicans, there is little incentive to let up in their effort to portray Orman as a liberal favorite -- a potentially fatal charge in conservative Kansas.

Given the lingering questions about why Taylor dropped out at the last minute -- he still hasn't explained himself -- and what exactly Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told him in their consultations in the days leading up to his decision, Republicans have plenty to work with. They've also zeroed in on Orman's past donations to Democratic candidates in TV ads.

Orman's own words have fueled the uncertainty about his intentions. He has left the door open to joining Democrats in Washington.

While he says he would caucus with whichever party is in the majority, if the majority comes down to him, he says he'll look to chat with both sides before making a decision.

Orman's campaign success may rest on his promise that he is truly independent of both parties. But to get there, he'll need to tap into their talent.