Kansas Senate race becomes nationalized

The U.S. Senate race in Kansas appears to have been taken over by the national organizations of both political parties, albeit in very different ways.

The latest news today is that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has taken over the troubled campaign of Sen. Pat Roberts, pushing out his longtime aide Leroy Towns as campaign manager and replacing him with Chris LaCivita, a consultant with the Virginia-based Advancing Strategies, LLC.

That move followed a bizarre turn of events on the Democratic side where national party officials, including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, nudged their own candidate Chad Taylor out of the race in the hopes that independent candidate Greg Orman can knock off Roberts, even though Orman has never committed to caucusing with the Democrats if he wins.

That was followed by Republican maneuvers to force Taylor to stay in the race. Thursday afternoon, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican and a member of Roberts’ honorary campaign team, ruled that Taylor could not withdraw from the ballot because he had not followed the letter of the law on how to do so, even though Taylor says he had consulted longtime elections chief Brad Bryant to make sure he was doing it properly.

It’s rare that national political parties take any interest at all in a Kansas race. While the state has a pretty even history of electing governors from both parties, in presidential and U.S. Senate races, the state has long been a reliable GOP stronghold. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to win Kansas’ presidential electoral votes, and no Democrat has won a Senate race here since the Great Depression.

As a result, it’s rare that any presidential candidate ever campaigns or runs a TV ad in Kansas. Democrats won’t waste their money here; Republicans don’t have to.

But this year’s Senate race is different, (a) because it appears to be unusually close and (b) because nothing less than control of the U.S. Senate is at stake.

Roberts, who has been a fixture in Washington since he was a congressional aide in the 1960s, barely survived a bruising primary race against tea party challenger Milton Wolf, winning with less than 50 percent of the vote. Recent polls for the general election have shown him slightly ahead in an essentially three-way race against Taylor and Orman, but still getting less than 40 percent of the overall vote.

But in hypothetical head-to-head matchups, at least one poll showed Roberts could lose if Orman were the only major challenger in the race, while he could probably beat Taylor on his own.

That poll came from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling. But the fact that Democrats are maneuvering to make it a two-man race between Roberts and Orman, coupled with GOP maneuvers to keep Taylor on the ballot and to take over Roberts’ campaign, probably indicates they have internal polls showing much the same thing.

At stake in all this is the GOP’s hopes of winning back control of the Senate this year. They need a net gain of six seats to accomplish that, and the latest guestimate from the statistics geeks at FiveThirtyEight blog say there’s a 63.4 percent chance that will happen.

There are 36 Senate seats up for election this year, a bit more than usual because of three special elections in Oklahoma, Hawaii and South Carolina.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call says Republicans have strong hopes of picking up seats currently held by Democrats in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado and Oregon. And if this turns out to be a “wave” election, they might well pick up additional seats in Minnesota and Virginia.

But if Roberts is vulnerable in Kansas, that could change the whole calculus.

And that’s what makes the action by Democrats appear especially odd. Because by dumping Taylor in favor of Orman, they are gambling on at least a 50-50 chance that he’ll caucus with the Republicans anyway, in which case the Democrats will have gained nothing.