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Poll: Potential Kansas disaster looms for Senate GOP

Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Chip Somodevilla / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Senate Democrats have gotten bad polling news in several states lately. But the unexpectedly competitive Kansas race has been a consistent bright spot — even though the party technically isn't fielding a candidate.

On Wednesday, the party got more good news in the state, as a new USA Today / Suffolk University poll showed Kansas Senator Pat Roberts (R) is trailing independent Greg Orman by five points, with the incumbent winning only 41 percent of the vote. The new poll also showed Governor Sam Brownback (R) trailing his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, by 4 points. Brownback has become unpopular after enacting a large tax cut that has caused trouble for the state's finances — read more about that saga here.

The Roberts-Orman race has been marked by a series of twists and turns, including the Democratic nominee quitting the race, the GOP Secretary of State attempting to keep his name on the ballot, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that his name had to be taken off. In yet another legal twist, a lawsuit was filed to try and force Democrats to nominate a new candidate — but Wednesday afternoon, a district court ruled unanimously that they don't have to do so.

The new poll showing Orman ahead is consistent with the other four polls of a head-to-head matchup between Roberts and Orman, all of which showed Orman leading by between five and ten points. Some political observers had speculated that Orman had been leading because he was flying under the radar. Roberts had stopped airing TV ads after he won his primary, while Orman continued advertising heavily. Perhaps, some theorized, the race would turn around once Roberts began his negative ad campaign and concentrating on Orman as his main opponent.

But according to this poll, that hasn't happened yet — Orman's message seems to be retaining its appeal. When respondents were asked an open-ended question of what comes to mind when hearing each candidate's name, the most popular responses for Roberts were "been in office too long / need to retire / term limits" and "old / elderly" (Roberts is 78). For Orman, the most popular responses were "change / new / fresh" and "don't know him."

The problem for Senate Democrats is that this might not matter. Orman has said he'd caucus with whichever party wins a clear majority in the Senate. If Democrats lose two out of three competitive races in Alaska, Colorado, and Iowa — all of which their candidates trail in in the most recent polls — Republicans are highly likely to get that clear majority, and Orman will (presumably) join them. However, if Democrats do manage to edge out wins in two of those extremely close races, and Orman wins and chooses to caucus with them, the GOP will narrowly fail to retake the Senate yet again, barring a surprise in some other race.

Roberts will try to turn this around with more negative ads. Here's a new, minute-long attack saying Orman is dishonestly trying to hide his liberal views, complete with tracker footage showing Orman dodging a question about whether he'd vote down Obamacare:

Meanwhile, here's a new ad from Orman that further emphasizes his nonpartisanship, arguing that Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and Pat Roberts are "the reason Washington is such a mess":

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