In the wacky world of Kansas politics, the big question is whether the GOP secretary of state’s decision to keep the Democratic nominee on the Senate ballot is ultimately a bad thing for Democrats. Go figure.
The (allegedly) well-laid plans of Democrats in the Kansas Senate race were seemingly undone Thursday when Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) declared that Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee who said he was withdrawing from the race, would remain on the ballot in November.
Democrats’ apparent gambit was to get Taylor to clear the field for independent candidate Greg Orman, who flirted with running for Senate as a Democrat in 2008, to challenge incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). Democratic voters would presumably line up against anybody-but-Roberts, who would now be Orman with no Taylor to vote for, and a Republican incumbent would unexpectedly lose re-election in a national landscape where control of the Senate could come down to a single seat.
Taylor has said he will challenge the decision by Kobach, a member of Roberts’ honorary campaign committee. But if the countermove stands, would it undo the Democratic gambit? Maybe, according to a local political scientist. At best, it would leave Orman with an exceedingly narrow path to victory.
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor, laid out the math to TPM on Friday. The midterm Kansas electorate is usually 50 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 20 percent unaffiliated, he said. Here is how Beatty described Orman’s winning coalition against Roberts.
First, more than 90 percent of Democrats need to vote for Orman. Second, Orman needs to win over more centrist Republicans, who have been alienated by the party’s rightward turn under Gov. Sam Brownback, and take at least 30 percent of the overall GOP vote. Lastly, he needs to turn out actual independents and win them convincingly.
That isn’t easy on its own. But if Taylor stays on the ballot, then it becomes all the more difficult. It’s possible as much as 15 percent of the Democratic base would simply check the name with the D next to it, no matter what is happening in the actual campaign, Beatty said. That would be a serious blow to the winning path that Orman should be seeking.
“I think it’s up to Orman to figure out a campaign message that really lets Democrats know and turns them out,” Beatty said, but without allowing Roberts to brand him a partisan Democrat and driving the moderates back to the incumbent.
“It’s a tough task. It’s never been done,” Beatty said. “It’s doable. It’s just obviously not a slam dunk.”
Orman’s strong polling is part of the reason that Democrats are believed to have asked Taylor to step down. An Aug. 19 Public Policy Polling found Orman leading Roberts 43 percent to 33 percent in a hypothetical match-up without Taylor. But it’s hard to know how it would all shake out if Taylor’s name were still on the ballot, but the man himself was not actively campaigning.
Daniel Nichanian, a University of Chicago doctoral student who helps cover elections for the Daily Kos, rounded up some recent examples of races where a candidate had dropped out of the race but stayed on the ballot. He found that the candidate-in-name-only attracted between 2 to 6 percent of the vote. That would certainly narrow Orman’s chances if, as Beatty outlined, he needs to attract 90-plus percent of Democrats to win.
It’s all guesswork at this point. As TPM’s Josh Marshall pointed out Thursday, Roberts is clearly struggling: He’s been polling at 35 percent, according to TPM’s PollTracker average. That’s not the number of an incumbent who can cruise to victory, which explains why national Republicans are sending in the campaign cavalry.
But if the math here is right, Kobach has probably bettered Roberts’ odds.