The Kansas Senate race hasn't gotten much attention this year. Though it's now clear that the state's Republican governor Sam Brownback is in serious political trouble, 78-year Senator Pat Roberts (R) looked likely to hold on. Despite several recent polls showing Roberts had only a small lead, the Democratic candidate, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, wasn't viewed as a serious contender — he was little-known and had raised very little money. Additionally, The Hill's Alexandra Jaffe writes, Kansas Democrats were worried about "Taylor's baggage concerning a discrimination suit brought against him by two former female employees, as well as his initial refusal to prosecute sexual harassment cases as DA due to budget cuts."
Yet, as Sam Wang explained in the New Yorker last week, there was one scenario that seemed like it could lead to Roberts' defeat — because of an independent candidate in the race. Greg Orman, a former Democrat and wealthy businessman, is criticizing both major parties and running on an anti-Washington platform. And a head-to-head poll pitting Roberts against just Orman showed Orman ahead by 10 — so if Taylor dropped out, Roberts might be in big trouble. "Paradoxically, Pat Roberts's political future may depend on his Democratic opponent staying in the race," Wang wrote.
Late on Wednesday, Taylor made Wang's scenario a reality by dropping out. In a statement to the Wichita Eagle, Taylor didn't explain why he was quitting the race — but the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan and Ed O'Keefe report that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) had privately encouraged Taylor to do so, to help Orman's chances.
Orman has said that if he wins, and if one party ends up clearly in the majority, he will "seek to caucus" with that party. But if the Democrats end up with 49 seats to the Republicans' 50, a victorious Orman would be the vote deciding Senate control, and would be intensely courted by both sides. "Ultimately, I'm going to caucus with the party that's ... most willing to address some of the biggest issues we have," Orman said Wednesday, according to Politico's Manu Raju and Kyle Cheney.
Orman describes himself as "someone who is fiscally responsible and socially tolerant," and has criticized both parties and their leaders. However, he is pro-choice, a critic of the Citizens United decision, and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. And, as McCaskill's actions indicate, Democratic support will likely coalesce behind Orman, while Republicans will try very hard to help Roberts keep his seat, which seems like it could have some impact on Orman's decision about who to caucus with.
The race is still young — Kansas voters still don't know Orman all that well, and he'll have to withstand attacks from the GOP. And, as Jaffe writes, certain Kansas laws make Taylor's withdrawal a bit messy, and could even mean his name has to stay on the ballot. But since the Democrats have so few opportunities in Republican-held seats this year, the prospect of adding another to the list is a great help to their chances of holding the chamber. It's now clear that this race should be watched closely in the coming weeks.