A Shocking Strategic Maneuver In Kansas Could Help Democrats Keep Their Senate Majority
Democratic nominee Chad Taylor announced his departure from the race Wednesday, paving the way for 45-year-old independent candidate Greg Orman to challenge Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican who has been one of the state's senators since 1997 and in Congress since 1981.
"This is certainly an unexpected turn of events," Orman said in a statement. "Chad Taylor is a committed public servant. He ran an honorable campaign and worked hard, and I wish him and his family well."
The move means Roberts is now facing a far more daunting path to re-election - and his campaign was furious. After Taylor dropped out, Team Roberts issued a statement that accused Orman and Democrats of entering into a "corrupt bargain" to retain the Senate majority.
"Chad Taylor's withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race reveals a corrupt bargain between Greg Orman and national Democrats including Senator Harry Reid that disenfranchises Kansas Democrats," said Leroy Towns, Roberts' executive campaign manager. "It makes clear what has been obvious from the start: Orman is the choice of liberal Democrats, and he can no longer hide behind an independent smokescreen."
According to multiple Democratic operatives familiar with the race, the state Democratic party had worked hard to persuade Taylor to withdraw from the race in the belief allowing Orman to fly solo would pose the best challenge to Roberts. Orman is a former Democrat who has portrayed himself as frustrated with the two-party system. It is widely expected he would caucus with Democrats in the Senate if elected - especially if Democrats retain the majority - but he hasn't given a clear indication yet on that question.
Last month, Roberts survived a primary challenge from the Tea Party-aligned doctor Milton Wolf. But though scant polling is available on a head-to-head general electionrace between Roberts and Orman, at least one survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Roberts starting from behind.
That poll, which was released late last month, showed Roberts trailing Orman, 43-33. It also showed Taylor dropping out was essential to Orman's chances, as the two both narrowly trailed Roberts in polling of a three-way race.
Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, said Orman could definitely beat Roberts, who was badly damaged by his primary battle. The incumbent's approval rating now sits at just 27%, compared with 44% of Kansas voters who disapprove of him.
"I definitely think Orman can win - Roberts' approval rating was 27% on our last poll, and when you have a 27% approval rating you're always in a lot of trouble," Jensen told Business Insider.
However, Jensen cautioned Orman might be at his peak in the cycle - and Roberts might be at his low point. Other Republicans facing tough primary challenges, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, improved their standing as their primary challenges have faded further into the rearview mirror.
And Orman will also have to walk a fine line to maintain his current level of support. According to the PPP poll, he would steal about 30% of Republicans away from Roberts. Orman needs that success with moderate Republicans to have a chance against Roberts.
"He's relying on being able to maintain a group of voters who are completely divided on national politics overall - that's a tough act," Jensen said.
Momentum is clearly with Orman. Since his primary win - which was initially expected to be his only major challenge of the cycle - Roberts has seen his race change from a near-certain win to a relative toss-up. The University of Virginia's Center for Politics has in just one week downgraded the seat from a "safe Republican" to a "leans Republican."
Putting the seat more in play improves Democratic chances on a challenging map because of the resources that will need to be devoted to a normally deep-red seat. And if Orman wins, it also flips the dynamics of the battle for Senate control. Right now, Republicans need to swing six Democratic-held seats to gain control of the Senate while holding onto their own seats. If Orman prevails, the GOP would have to pick up a different seat from a more challenging battleground state.
Wrote Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics: "It's odd but true: Senate Democrats had a good day because the Democratic candidate in a Senate race dropped out two months before the election. Politics can be a bizarre business."
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