Once expected to be a routine game of political checkers, the 2014 Kansas U.S. Senate race has turned instead into head-scratching, three-dimensional chess.
The two major-party players, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and Democrat Chad Taylor, must confront each other. But this November they’ll also face credible outsiders: Libertarian Randall Batson and, more critically, well-financed independent candidate and Olathe businessman Greg Orman.
That crowded field complicates the race, for candidates and for voters. At first glance, the seemingly and surprisingly vulnerable Roberts looks most likely to benefit from an electorate fractured by the crowded field.
But who should Roberts worry about most — Taylor or Orman? Can Taylor attack Roberts’ long public record and Orman’s lack of experience at the same time? Will Orman seek moderate Republicans angry at Roberts’ rightward turn, or should he first capture Democrats by arguing Taylor has no chance to win?
Even Batson’s limited backing could make a difference in a close race. The campaign challenges are tricky and, in deeply red Kansas, extraordinary.
“The reliability of Sunflower State politics seems to have been upended,” Princeton analyst Sam Wang wrote last week for The New Yorker magazine.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Roberts was once a prohibitive favorite for re-election. In fact, he remains a weak favorite despite a less-than-stellar victory in a brutal GOP primary. He was hammered in that race as a politician with fading ties to the state he represents who has become more a creature of Washington than of Kansas. Those themes seem to dog him still in the general election campaign.
Still, Kansans have sent only Republicans to the Senate since the 1930s, and the veteran has led in all polls on the race.
But he got just 37 percent of the vote in the latest Survey USA/KSN-TV poll. That’s 31 points lower than his average vote share in his three previous Senate races, suggesting a serious erosion of his support.
Moreover, an August poll showed Roberts losing by 10 points in a head-to-head match with Orman, who is still relatively unknown.
Independent candidacies like Orman’s are difficult, but not impossible. Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota governorship without major party backing. Michael Bloomberg was elected as New York’s mayor as an independent.
There are two independents in the U.S. Senate: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.
King’s campaign is a potential model for Orman. In 2012, King easily defeated two major-party Senate candidates, taking nearly 53 percent of the vote.
Yet he had advantages Orman lacks. King had held office before — he served as governor — and was a well-known media personality as well as a politician. (Likewise, Ventura was widely known as a wrestler and entertainer. Bloomberg had built a fortune and a name for himself long before politics.)
“Angus King was not your normal independent or third-party candidate,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
But he said King’s argument was similar to those of other independents: that the two major parties are broken, and only candidates outside them can bridge the gap.
Orman’s commercials and public statements echo that view.
“We’re saying … I’m going to be able to go to Washington as a problem-solver, not a partisan,” he said. “We’re going to be able to embrace the best ideas.”
Orman may also benefit from the perception of a tight national race for control of the Senate.
He’s not said yet if he’ll caucus with Democrats, as King and Sanders do, or with Republicans. On his website, he says he’ll likely caucus with the majority party after the election “as that would be in the best interest for the state of Kansas.”
Yet some experts say an independent Orman could tip the balance of Senate control, giving him an opening to bargain for his vote.
“Orman matters,” Wang wrote, “perhaps more than he knows.”
If that perception persists — and Orman continues to do well in the polls — he may be able to add to his already substantial campaign budget. By mid-July, he had raised more than $671,000 for his independent campaign, far more than Democrat Taylor.
He would likely use that cash to try to convince Kansans he’s the only electable alternative to Roberts.
“From a practical standpoint, we think this is going to quickly become a two-candidate race between myself and Senator Roberts,” Orman said.
Roberts has given some signals he’s more worried about Orman than any other opponent. On primary night, the longtime senator complained loudly about candidates “masquerading” as independents, a clear reference to Orman.
Campaign spokesman Leroy Towns repeated a version of that criticism last week. “Greg Orman is an opportunist with few Kansas roots who wants to hide his liberal Democratic background behind an independent label,” he said.
Taylor, now the Shawnee County prosecutor, survived a closer-than-expected Democratic primary and is just now starting his campaign. His first TV ads hit screens around the state at August’s end.
He has far less campaign cash than he would like — only $1,673 in mid-July, according to Federal Election Commission records. Yet the Survey USA poll put Taylor just five points behind Roberts, firmly in second place, and 12 points ahead of Orman.
“We’re in exactly the position,” he said late last month, “we wanted to be.”
Taylor, like Orman, considers Roberts his only real opponent. He also thinks Orman draws more Republican votes than Democratic.
“Greg is a landing zone for a lot of folks who would not traditionally vote for a Democrat,” he said. “The good news is that those are votes Senator Roberts doesn’t get to claim.”
Taylor may also benefit from the state’s anti-incumbent, and to some degree anti-Republican, mood. He offers qualified support for some parts of the Affordable Care Act, hinted at support for relaxed marijuana laws and same-sex marriage and opposed new restrictions on teacher tenure in Kansas.
Yet his website also offers support for gun rights.
“I’m an extremely moderate candidate,” Taylor said. “I’m a fiscal conservative and a social moderate.”
He also criticized Roberts’ vote against the farm bill and against a spending bill that contained millions for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, Kan.
“Voters,” Taylor said, “are going to have clear, distinct options of the vision that each of the candidates puts forward.”
A tale of four choices
There’s a reason Orman and Taylor make electability the centerpiece of their campaigns: In any race with more than two candidates, a voter’s decision becomes much more complex.
Voters in such races must calculate not only what candidate best channels their views, but also which one has the strongest chance to win. A ballot cast for an unelectable spoiler can unexpectedly help a voter’s least favorite option prevail.
Many Republicans, for example, still blame Ross Perot voters for putting Bill Clinton in the White House in 1992 by taking votes away from their likely second choice, George H.W. Bush. Had two in three Perot voters cast ballots for Bush, the incumbent would have won the popular vote.
“As long as you have a plurality election rather than a majority … voters have to make that calculation,” said Mark Peterson, a political science professor at Pittsburg State University.
The dilemma could be addressed if either Orman or Taylor withdraws from the Senate race, consolidating presumed anti-Roberts votes under one banner. The deadline for withdrawal is today.
But both candidates said in separate interviews they have no plans to quit. Both think they can beat Roberts even in a four-way race, a major upset by any calculation.
Whispers continue that Taylor has been pressured to withdraw from the campaign, despite his standing in the polls, because of the difficulties Democrats typically face in Kansas. In a head-to-head match-up, a recent poll found, Taylor would lose to Roberts.
But the prosecutor says he hasn’t been asked to drop out, and he won’t.
“I haven’t heard this yakking that’s apparently going on, but I’m telling you I’m not getting out of this race,” he said.
“We’re not getting out.”