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Pay no attention to the Democrat behind the Independent curtain. That's the message three-term Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts, in the fight of his political life, is hoping voters will take with them to the voting booth on Tuesday.Roberts is in danger of becoming the first Republican to lose a Senate race to a Democrat in Kansas since 1932. The last time the state sent a Democrat to the Senate, FDR was on the ballot. This year, it would have been hard, if not impossible, for a Democrat to beat even a weakened Roberts. But after the GOP incumbent barely survived his August primary, the Democratic nominee dropped out of the race. And suddenly, Roberts faced a very real threat from Independent Greg Orman, a wealthy one-time Democrat who has lent the Democratic nominee, local prosecutor Chad Taylor, had little campaign money or name recognition, and abruptly withdrew from the ballot right after the primary. Suddenly, Roberts faced a threat from Independent Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman who was once a Democrat. Now, with less than 12 hours to go before voting begins, final polls show Orman barely edging out Roberts in the polls.
The Independent threat to a GOP Senate takeover hasn't been limited to Kansas. In South Dakota, the quirky Independent candidate Larry Pressler has shaken up a Senate race that most had considered all but locked up for the GOP. For a few weeks it looked like Pressler might be able to pull off an upset, or at least put the race in play for Democrats in 2014. The Republican candidate, former Governor Mike Rounds, has since recovered in the polls, but Pressler's campaign, like Orman's, has called into question the GOP's presumed inevitability in the conservative prairie states.The races have raised questions about how these two Independent candidates could have gained enough traction to potentially affect control of the Senate--and what this could portend for the national political landscape in 2016 and beyond. An Independent victory in Kansas would add to the two Independents already in the Senate and might embolden other credible Independents to jump into future races, especially where there is a weak incumbent like Roberts."They have tapped into public disgust with the two major parties," said political analyst Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. A real Independent wave, Sabato added, "will take one winning, maybe two, although you can make an argument that if an Independent can hold a longtime incumbent like Roberts to the low 50s in a two-way race, then it's possible that we could see more of this in 2016."
If Roberts loses, he'll have himself to blame. Despite his lackluster polling numbers, the three-term incumbent did have certain advantages baked in, including high name recognition, lack of a scandal, and the general conservative bent of his constituents, all of which made him the overwhelming favorite going into his 2014 re-election campaign. But Roberts' slide began in earnest when the New York Times reported in February that the Senator rents out his house in Dodge City, Kansas, and stays with campaign donors when he returns to his home state. Roberts didn't do anything to help himself: When asked about his residency in a July 3 interview on KCMO radio in Kansas, he replied: "Every time I get an opponent--I mean, every time I get a chance, I'm home."Roberts' Republican opponent pounced, calling it "a slap in the face to Kansans." But Roberts managed to pull through in the August primary, albeit with a lackluster sub-50 percent finish. Then his camp stepped in it again, almost immediately. In an August 9 interview with The Wichita Eagle, Roberts' campaign spokesperson Leroy Towns said that the Senator had returned "home" to Washington for a few days of rest, before clarifying: "Home is probably not the right word in terms of the way the campaign's been. But anyway he went back there. It's where his family is at the moment. But he does intend to spend every moment between now and the election in Kansas, I think, that he can."
Realizing that Roberts might be in trouble, national Republicans sent in a rescue team, shaking up Roberts' campaign staff, mending fences with some of the Tea Party types who had supported Wolf, and flying in surrogates like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin to stump for the embattled incumbent.Also hurting Roberts is the unpopularity of Kansas's Republican Governor Sam Brownback, who is faces intense dissatisfaction among voters after spending the last four years building a Tea Party Shangri-La of lower taxes and limited government--a spectacular conservative wet dream of slashed social services, reduced education spending, and joyous tax breaks to business.For his part, Orman has mostly avoided the national press while proclaiming his independence loud and often, such as in a "closing argument" speech a week ago. He's been laying out policy positions, some general, some more specific, and has criticized both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, as "too partisan for far too long to earn my vote." Despite Republican attempts to brand the Independent as a Democrat, Orman has stuck by his claim that he will caucus with whatever party wins a clear majority in the Senate on Tuesday. (If Republicans take control of the Senate as expected though, it's unclear if the party will welcome Orman to the team.)The race remains a nail-biter. Millions of dollars poured in at the last minute from donors and outside groups, and Orman personally spotted his campaign $1.2 million out of a personal fortune of at least $21 million. Polls have seesawed. When the national GOP turned its attention to Kansas, Roberts clawed his way back to the lead, but polls now show Orman with a slight advantage going into Tuesday's election. Orman also got a strong push from the Kansas City Star last week, when the paper published an editorial trashing Roberts for his willingness to "say and do anything to try to win on November 4, even as those tactics rob him of credibility to serve the state." Republicans will likely win control of the Senate without Roberts, the paper concluded, so "Kansas voters should send Roberts packing and Orman to Washington."
"This race is just way, way too close to call," said Josh Ryan, an assistant professor of political science at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. "What has happened is there are some pretty weak candidates and, in Kansas, there's a viable Independent running. I also think what is happening to Sam Brownback and the Republican Party's brand is hurting Roberts after his tough primary."Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Orman has done a good job of capitalizing on Roberts' weakness while projecting himself as an Independent. "He looks like this idealized Independent," Loomis said. "Roberts is being judged more on being seen as out of touch."Democrats want to beat Roberts even as they say they're not sure whom Orman would caucus with in the Senate. If nothing else, Roberts' loss would embarrass the GOP, and could erode the party's control over the Senate, should Republicans win a majority on Tuesday."We have had no conversations with Greg Orman," Matt Canter, deputy director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said earlier in October. But if Roberts wins, Canter added, "there is a 100 percent chance he will caucus with the Republicans. I believe that chance is smaller with Greg Orman."There is also a possibility (albeit a slim one) that control of the Senate could hinge on Orman, should he defeat Roberts on Tuesday. If Republicans win just 50 seats, and Orman decides to caucus with Democrats, control of the Senate would be split 50-50, making Vice President Joe Biden the deciding vote. On the other hand, if Orman decides to side with Republicans in that scenario, he would give the GOP a slim 51-49 majority. Maine's Independent Senator Angus King could complicate things further by deciding to caucus with Republicans (in the past, he has usually caucused with Democrats.
If a couple of Independents held the balance of power, might that change the way the Congress in some ways did business? It at least puts a little bit of a wedge in there," Loomis says. "It might make things interesting."But political analysts cautioned against looking at Orman's campaign as some kind of harbinger for future third-party candidacies, or as the beginning of some kind of moderate wave among the electorate. Rather than constitute their own movement, politicians like Orman, Pressler, and King are signs of the electorate's dissatisfaction with the current Republican and Democratic parties, not a broader rejection of the two-party system."Kansas is a pretty unique situation that shouldn't be projected as any kind of national trend," agrees Charlie Cook, a leading political handicapper. "There are a number of factors unrelated to the Senate race that impact it.""I would steer clear of generalizations," said Cook. "The airplane door about to close."Follow Timothy J. Burger on Twitter