The Kansas Senate campaign upended again Thursday when Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Democrat Chad Taylor must remain on the ballot — less than 24 hours after Taylor filed papers to withdraw from the race.
Late Thursday, Taylor vowed to challenge that decision.
Kobach cited a 1997 Kansas statute requiring a withdrawing candidate to declare he or she is “incapable” of serving if elected. Taylor’s letter, Kobach said, referenced the law but did not contain the required language.
“The law is crystal clear here,” he told The Star. “If anyone thinks there was any political motivation, I would ask how they can possibly read the law any other way.”
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A Kansas Senate ballot that includes a Democrat is widely seen as helpful to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. A ballot without a Democrat would allow anti-Roberts votes to coalesce around Greg Orman, a well-financed independent.
Orman declined to comment.
Roberts could not be reached. His campaign underwent a major shake-up Thursday, reflecting growing GOP concerns that the veteran is in serious jeopardy.
Meantime, Kobach’s decision apparently means a legal challenge from Taylor, with the final decision unpredictable.
“I don’t have a good sense for how the courts would rule,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine.
In a statement Thursday, Taylor defended the language in his withdrawal letter. He said he specifically asked the secretary of state’s office about the proper wording and certification and drafted his message accordingly.
“Upon confirming that my letter would remove my name from the ballot, I presented identification, signed the notary ledger, and signed the letter before a secretary of state employee notarized it,” Taylor’s statement said. “My candidacy in this race was terminated yesterday.”
In a news conference, Kobach disputed Taylor’s account. Kobach said an employee in his office was questioned and at no time was Taylor told that his filing was sufficient to withdraw his candidacy.
“Mr. Taylor is an attorney,” Kobach said. “He is capable of reading a statute.”
The Republican secretary of state — locked in his own re-election battle — said he was not influenced by his party’s public comments on the matter. GOP officials had pointed out the possible legal problems with Taylor’s letter, and were preparing to press their case in court.
Kobach said state law did not detail a procedure for appealing his decision, but that courts are available. The deadline for certifying ballots is Friday.
He said he had spoken briefly with Taylor’s attorney.
Early Thursday, Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon said her party’s legal plans were still under review. But she said Kobach has injected himself into the ballot dispute.
“He is partisan, and mean, and he has made an unmitigated mess of our electoral system,” she said. “He ought to keep his hand out of this one.”
It isn’t clear how Kobach’s office became officially involved in the fight. Wednesday afternoon, his office pulled Taylor’s name from the list of candidates running in the state. Just hours later, it was back — as legal questions swirled around the withdrawal announcement.
GOP officials in Kansas said they did not file a formal request for a review. Instead, they submitted a “summary of argument” document claiming Taylor had not met the legal requirements for withdrawal.
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.
But the Kansas GOP argued withdrawal “must be a limited remedy for unusual circumstances, reflecting the importance of the elected position originally sought. Candidates cannot be permitted to file for office superficially.”
The legal battle rumbled in the background as politicians and analysts continued to assess the impact of Taylor’s decision to quit.
National Republicans moved to assume more control of the faltering Roberts campaign. The New York Times reported that Chris LaCivita, a veteran party consultant, would come to Kansas to advise the candidate.
Republicans in Kansas said Leroy Towns, Roberts’ longtime adviser and campaign spokesman, packed his bags Thursday and was presumably no longer a part of the campaign.
The motives for Taylor’s unexpected withdrawal remained murky Thursday.
“I’m done. I’m out. I’m withdrawn from the race,” he said in a brief interview. “I’m not commenting on it.”
Yet there were indications Democrats had applied some pressure to Taylor to get him to quit. The calculation: Orman, the independent, has a better chance of beating Roberts — even though Orman has yet to say if he’ll join with Senate Democrats if elected, or with Republicans.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, spoke with Taylor before his decision. But it wasn’t clear if her call made any difference in the candidate’s withdrawal.
Others said Taylor’s decision was likely driven by cold political reality. Taylor squeaked by in a surprisingly tight primary race and saw his campaign warchest dwindle to relative insignificance. And a Democrat hasn’t won a Kansas Senate seat since the 1930s.
Meantime, Orman has hundreds of thousands of dollars at his disposal and poll numbers suggesting he poses a genuine threat to Roberts when the two are matched head-to-head.
Those surveys suggest that in a race with Taylor, Orman, Roberts and Libertarian Randall Batson, the anti-incumbent vote would splinter in multiple directions and leave the Republican on top with a plurality.
Roberts survived his own tough primary with tea party candidate Milton Wolf. While Wolf ultimately fell short, he left the incumbent wounded with unrelenting attacks suggesting he doesn’t have a true home in Kansas and that he’s been in Washington too long.
On Wednesday, Wolf posted a message to his followers on Facebook. He did not mention Roberts by name and offered no endorsement.
“We will reject the short-sighted and ultimately self-sacrificial clamoring of those who would have us sacrifice our principles on the altar of political expedience,” he wrote.
Tea party anger at Roberts could further complicate his campaign. One poll found Orman, a Johnson County businessman, leading Roberts by 10 points when imagining a race without Taylor.
In turn, it helps explain why Republican leaders in Kansas were quick to insist that Taylor’s name be put to voters Nov. 4.
Given its volatile history, though, it seems likely the Senate race will change again before that date.