The breadcrumbs were there, but it’s fair to say that Democrat Chad Taylor stunned the political world when he announced Wednesday that he was dropping out of the Kansas Senate race. That leaves independent Greg Orman, who was once a Democrat, to challenge incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) in November’s general election.
It bewildered outsiders in part because Taylor was performing admirably for a Democrat in the state with the longest gap since it lasted elected one to the Senate. TPM’s PollTracker average had Taylor trailing by less than 6 percentage points.
But did Democrats really think the best shot of knocking of Roberts was to clear the field for Orman, even if that meant getting their own nominee out of the race? Or was something else going on, too?
Political observers in Kansas suggest looking at the state’s gubernatorial election contest. State Sen. Paul Davis (D) seems to have a real shot at knocking off Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative stalwart; Davis leads by 6 percentage points, per TPM’s PollTracker average.
With Taylor out of the race, in-state Democrats can focus almost all of their attention on Davis. And if some recent polling is to be believed, Orman still has a realistic shot to beat Roberts and he’s a former Democrat who’s said he’s open to caucusing with either party. That’s a potential win-win.
“The state Democrats had an incentive to do this as well, obviously,” Fort Hays State University political scientist Chapman Rackaway told TPM. “They see a golden opportunity to knock Sam Brownback off in the governorship. All of their energy and all of the state Democratic money is going to the Davis campaign.”
And all is not necessarily lost for Dems in the Senate race, Rackaway said. “Pat Roberts would be a bonus for them. Orman’s candidacy allows them to not funnel as much money to the Orman campaign, but he’s still more closely allied with them than Roberts.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, called beating Brownback “this sort of obsession, this holy grail” for Kansas Democrats.
“If it’s Roberts and Orman, Democrats don’t have to feel guilty about not doing much for Taylor,” Beatty said.
Rumors had been going around about Taylor possibly dropping out, Rackaway said, though the official news still caught people like Beatty by surprise. But in retrospect, there were signs. Orman received endorsements from a Democratic congressional candidate and Women for Kansas in the last few weeks, nods that usually would have gone to a Democrat. An Aug. 19 poll from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found Orman topping Roberts by 10 percentage points in a then-hypothetical head-to-head race.
Then at some point in recent days, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) spoke with Taylor, prior to his decision to drop out, though her office won’t specify what they discussed.
But as Rackaway put it to TPM: “A campaign is never going to decide this on its own. Someone had to sit down with Taylor.”
One last hurdle for the Democratic gambit is Kansas election law. Legal experts like the University of California-Irvine’s Rick Hasen seem a little unsure whether Taylor is actually allowed to withdraw his name from the ballot or whether Democrats would be required to replace him. The office of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) initially took Davis’ name off the online candidate list, but the Associated Press reported that Kobach later said his legal team was assessing the situation. It would be a big blow to Orman’s chances if there is any candidate with a D next to his name in the race, Beatty said.
But assuming Democrats don’t have even a token candidate, Rackaway said he expects them to do some behind-the-scenes work to help Orman, like mobilizing voters or big-dollar donors contributing some money. Nothing for the public to see, though. That would undermine the independent campaign that has gotten Orman to this point.
“I don’t see the Democrats doing public things,” Rackaway said. “That would really run counter to his message. You’d see his numbers plummet. That’s easy opposition material for Roberts.”