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Democrats hoping to keep the Senate just got great news from the Kansas Supreme Court

Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Bill Clark, CQ-Roll Call / 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.

On Thursday afternoon, in a decision with potentially crucial implications in the battle for the Senate, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the dropped-out Democratic nominee's name must be removed from the ballot. This decision is just the outcome Democrats wanted, because it paves the way for a two-way contest between Republican Senator Pat Roberts and independent candidate Greg Orman. You can read the decision here.

The Democratic candidate, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, had won the nomination back when the race didn't appear competitive. He was viewed as a weak contender with little shot of winning. But after several polls came out showing unexpectedly bad numbers for Roberts — and strong numbers for Orman, a wealthy businessman and former Democrat — Taylor filed to withdraw from the race, which would allow Orman to take on Roberts one-on-one.

However, Republicans soon argued that Taylor didn't withdraw properly. They pointed out that the law allowing withdrawal only refers to nominees who declare "that they are incapable of fulfilling the duties of office." And they argued that Taylor's short letter of withdrawal didn't specifically mention anything about being incapable. Therefore, Secretary of State Kris Kobach argued, the law required that he keep Taylor's name on the ballot. But Kobach — a conservative Republican known for his strong support of voter ID laws — is a member of Pat Roberts' honorary campaign committee, so he was questioned about why he didn't recuse himself from the decision. (Kobach argued that "these honorary committees are just usually meaningless.")

Why was the GOP fighting so hard to keep a dropped-out candidate's name on the ballot? Well, past precedents indicate that, if Taylor's name stayed, he likely wouldn't have gotten too many votes — but he could have gotten somewhere in the low single digits, enough to potentially tip a close race to Roberts. (Check out one analysis of similar situations from Daily Kos poster Taniel here.) Recent polls have shown Taylor drawing between 6 and 11 percent of the vote.

The ballots had to be printed by Saturday, September 20, so they could be sent to members of the military — so the Kansas Supreme Court heard the case. The court has 4 sitting justices who were appointed by Democrats and 2 by Republicans. And oral arguments didn't seem to go well for the GOP. Taylor's letter, the justices pointed out, made specific reference to the statute he was using to withdraw from the race. So, the justices asked, why did he have to use the particular word "incapable," if he was clearly referencing that statute? They also pointed out that several other candidates had been permitted to withdraw in the past even though none of them explicitly said they were incapable of serving.

The court's ruling ended up being unanimous — Taylor's name had to be dropped. However, the statute also says that if a nominated candidate withdraws, the party should hold a convention to pick a new nominee. The court didn't rule on whether Democrats had to do that. But, just minutes after the ruling, Kobach announced that he would give them 8 days to pick a new nominee, according to Wichita Eagle reporter Brian Lowry. He also announced that he would delay the mailing of the ballots one more week to allow time for this.

This post has been updated with new developments.

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