The clouds surrounding the U.S. Senate race in Kansas cleared Wednesday: The odds of a Democrat on the ballot disappeared, while an expected brawl between the remaining contenders moved closer to reality.
A panel of three Shawnee County District Court judges ruled Wednesday that Democrats need not nominate a candidate for the race. Hours later, a possible appeal was dropped and the state ordered local officials to print ballots and prepare voting machines.
“It’s done,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon.
The end of the ballot dispute means Kansas voters now know their major choices in November: incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and independent Greg Orman.
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And the guarantee of that choice saw both candidates sharpening their attacks — in a race where the challenger still leads, according to the latest public poll.
“This race,” said Roberts campaign manager Corry Bliss, “has really just begun.”
The Orman campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A unanimous three-judge panel in Topeka said Democrats could assess their “best interests” when deciding whether to replace Chad Taylor on the ballot after his withdrawal Sept. 3. They prefer to leave their spot blank in the belief that a narrowed field increases the chances of a Roberts defeat.
The ruling appears to end a monthlong battle over the ballot, in which Republicans sought a Democratic nominee and Democrats resisted putting any name before voters.
Polls have consistently shown Roberts short of a majority of votes. But some polls also suggested anti-Roberts votes splitting between Orman and a Democrat, giving the longtime senator an opening to re-election with a plurality.
A race without a Democrat, on the other hand, is generally seen as an advantage to Orman. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Wednesday that did not include a Democrat showed Orman leading Roberts by more than five percentage points.
Libertarian Randall Batson, who remains in the race, drew less than 1 percent of those surveyed. More than 11 percent remained undecided.
The increasing certainty of a Democrat-free race prompted the Roberts and Orman campaigns to ratchet up their rhetoric Wednesday. Both launched new ads sharply critical of each other.
Orman’s commercial said Democrats shared responsibility for stalemates in Washington, but blamed GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Roberts for “half the mess.”
Roberts’ ad — which, like Orman’s, featured grainy pictures taken at a Kansas State Fair debate — accused the challenger of being “desperate to hide his liberal agenda.”
Roberts’ campaign also continued its outreach to frustrated tea party Republicans in Kansas, voters considered crucial to his re-election bid.
Many tea partiers remain angry with Roberts over the treatment of Milton Wolf in the GOP primary. Some have threatened to sit on their hands in November, lengthening Roberts’ re-election odds.
But Roberts’ supporters say some tea party officials have asked for favors that either can’t be delivered or would be improper.
“Our focus,” Bliss told The Star, “has always been on Greg Orman.”
The district court decision narrowing the ballot surprised few.
David Orel of Kansas City, Kan., filed suit in mid-September, seeking to force Democrats to name a Senate candidate. Secretary of State Kris Kobach asked to intervene, claiming state law required such a choice.
But the judges disagreed.
“When a candidate vacancy occurs after a primary, it is the judgment of the political party as to whether to challenge, or not, for the office by assessing both candidate availability and viability and, as well, its own party’s best interests,” the judges said in a unanimous ruling.
Orel’s attorney later said his client would not appeal. The court said the petitioner, who failed to appear in court for arguments, would have to pay the costs of the proceeding.
The deadline for printing general election ballots is this week. County-based election officials have expressed increasing impatience with the delay prompted by the ballot lawsuits.
Wednesday’s decision will likely ease concern among those officials. Overseas ballots have already been mailed, and some overseas residents have voted.
Advance voting in Kansas begins Oct. 15, less than two weeks from now. Election Day is Nov. 4.
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