Democrat Chad Taylor’s exit shakes up U.S. Senate race in Kansas

09/03/2014 4:57 PM

09/04/2014 7:15 AM

Kansas voters have lost a chance to vote for a Democratic senator this fall — and Republicans could pay the price.

Chad Taylor’s stunning decision Wednesday to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race forced partisans and analysts to recalculate the potential outcome of the Kansas contest.

The consensus: Longtime incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts is in serious trouble, and the GOP’s chances of controlling the Senate could suffer as a result.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s stunning. It’s shocking,” said Stu Rothenberg, a nationally known political analyst. Roberts “is still going to be the favorite, but the fact that those of us in Washington who look at races actually have Kansas on our radar is a significant development.”

After surviving a brutal GOP primary in August, Roberts — and other Republicans — were counting on a four-way election to split his opposition, giving the veteran a chance to win in November with less than a majority of votes.

The likelihood of that outcome tumbled dramatically Wednesday when Taylor quit.

A recent  poll found remaining independent candidate Greg Orman leading Roberts by 10 points in a one-on-one matchup.  The Olathe businessman enjoyed the same margin in a different mid-August poll.

Perhaps sensing the danger, Roberts campaign spokesman Leroy Towns attempted to reframe the race along classic conservative-versus-liberal lines soon after Taylor’s decision was announced.

“Chad Taylor’s withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race reveals a corrupt bargain between Greg Orman and national Democrats including Sen. Harry Reid that disenfranchises Kansas Democrats,” the statement said. “We are confident that Kansas voters will quickly see through this charade.”

Orman’s own prepared statement was more cautious.

“This is certainly an unexpected turn of events,” he said. “Chad Taylor is a committed public servant. He ran an honorable campaign and worked hard, and I wish him and his family well.”

Not everyone thinks Roberts will suffer now that Taylor has left the race. Orman, they pointed out, has gathered support by appealing to voters disgusted with Republicans and Democrats.

“Orman might have been much better off in a three-way race,” argued Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “Running now as sort of the de facto Democrat does change what this race looks like and changes how voters will see him.”

It isn’t clear if Orman will become the de facto Democrat in the race. He ran for the Senate as a Democrat in 2008, but he has declined to commit to caucusing with either major party if voters send him to Washington.

It is highly likely, however, that he’ll pick up more Taylor votes than Roberts will.

“I have a hard time believing that Taylor voters are going to be shuffling over to Roberts’ side,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “That tells me that this just consolidates a lot of votes behind Orman.”

Many Kansas Democrats spent Wednesday evening scratching their heads, trying figure out if they should declare for Orman or wait.

“We’re still assessing to see what this means,” said Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “What I really want to see is Pat Roberts vanished from the Capitol.”

She offered few clues to the reasons behind Taylor’s decision. In an interview with The Star last week, the Shawnee County prosecutor emphatically repeated his determination to run, despite ongoing whispers that Democrats were urging him to leave the campaign.

His office did not return phone calls Wednesday. In a tweet, Taylor said, “Thanks to our supporters — financial, spiritual and emotional.”

His decision to withdraw was contained in a short letter to the Kansas secretary of state. Under state law, a nominated candidate “who declares that they are incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected” can withdraw by notifying the state by a set deadline.

That deadline was Wednesday.

Kansas Republican Party Director Clay Barker wasn’t sure Taylor’s letter met the legal standard. “I am curious about what changed in his life in the last week that he is now incapable of fulfilling the duties,” he said.

“He was campaigning last week, telling people he was all in. He was telling everybody that Orman can’t win … and suddenly he withdraws. There has to be a reason.”

Few Kansans knew those reasons Wednesday. Some Democrats said an accumulation of pressure might have forced Taylor’s hand but that no one voice made the difference.

But the Republican’s seeming objections to Taylor pulling out hints the GOP might have figured Roberts’ re-election would be easier in a crowded race and a fractured electorate.

Some said Democrats were worried that Taylor’s lagging effort could eventually hurt Paul Davis’ campaign for governor. Indeed, Taylor’s decision is likely to free up Democrats across the country to send more money to Davis in his campaign to unseat Gov. Sam Brownback.

Taylor was drastically underfunded. In mid-July, he had $1,673 in his campaign account, compared with Roberts’ $1,445,897. Orman’s campaign had $362,592 in mid-July.

Yet the Democrat’s campaign showed no signs of a pending withdrawal until late in the day Wednesday. Taylor billboards were up along Interstate 35. In a tweet Wednesday, the campaign urged supporters to attend the campaign’s first debate Saturday in Hutchinson.

Now recalculations are underway.

That’s true across the country. Virtually every survey of a potential GOP takeover of the Senate is predicated on Roberts’ victory in Kansas, a victory that is now at least in some doubt.

And that, in turn, means Republicans may end up spending millions of dollars on a Senate race that they once thought was a lock.

“That primary really damaged Roberts,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

“You never bet against a Republican in Kansas,” he added. “But it’s going to force the national Republicans to divert substantial resources to Kansas.”

The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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