This was supposed to be the easy one.
Kansas, a state that in 2012 favored Mitt Romney over President Obama by better than 20 points, had sent nothing but Republicans to the Senate for 75 years.
The governor is a Republican, the legislature is solidly Republican, the attorney general is a Republican, and even the Secretary of State is Republican. In an election cycle where the GOP had its sights set firmly on regaining majority control of the U.S. Senate, Kansas and its four-term incumbent Pat Roberts were not even on the battle map.
This one was supposed to already be signed, sealed, delivered and dull.
But a series of factors made the Sunflower State bloom with excitement this season.
First, in a year where anti-incumbent sentiment runs high (even when actual anti-incumbent votes don’t always do), controlling every office on the ballot doesn’t give the party in power a lot of places to hide.
Sen. Roberts was first staggered by a tea-party-aligned challenge from a radiologist named Milton Wolf, who pulled down 41 percent of the vote to the Senator’s 48 — and Wolf likely would have won if it weren’t for a couple of other challengers on the ballot and his own penchant for posting some of his x-ray work on Facebook, complete with off-color commentary.
And Wolf has not been gracious in defeat, so far refusing to endorse Roberts (or just avoiding any opportunity to do so).
Second, if Pat Roberts were to click his heels three times while repeating “There’s no place like home,” he’d find himself in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Va., which, last time anyone checked, isn’t in Kansas … not anymore … not ever.
You see, back in February, a New York Times story revealed that Roberts, who first hit Washington as a Hill staffer in the 1960s, doesn’t actually maintain what most would consider a residence in the state he represents. Instead, he kicks back in a spare room at a donor’s house in Dodge City, and lists that town as his official address.
If that issue were supposed to go away after the primaries, it was given high-octane boost when Roberts’ campaign manager remarked that the 78-year-old senator would head “back home for two days or three to rest.” And by “back,” he was explaining a flight from Kansas to Virginia.
That kind of slip alone might be enough to get the National Republican Senatorial Committee to send in a high-powered troubleshooter to take control of a campaign — and that is exactly what the national party did — but Roberts would need the help even without the loose lips.
Roberts’ life preserver for his sinking electoral hopes had always been a divided opposition. The incumbent had only been polling in the low to mid-thirties, but with two opponents each garnering 20-plus percent of the vote, Roberts still looked like he’d be the survivor come November.
But on September 3, the Democratic nominee for Roberts’ seat, Chad Taylor, a county prosecutor, submitted a letter to the Kansas secretary of state saying he was ending his campaign and requesting his name be removed from the ballot. That left Greg Orman, a self-funding former Democrat now running as an independent, as the only major challenger for Roberts. Orman had been out-fundraising Taylor, and, even more to the point, in a one-on-one match, according to the pre-election polls, Orman beats Roberts.
And Orman has said he will caucus with whichever party would put him in the majority (because, he says, that would be the most advantageous … for Kansas) come the next session of Congress. And, if the GOP loses Kansas, that could very well be the Democrats.
But this is all much too simple.
The Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, who has final say over who is and is not on the November ballot, and who, as noted, is a Republican, announced on September 4, the day after the deadline to file, that he would not allow Taylor to take his name off the ballot because the Democrat had not said he would be incapable of fulfilling the duties of his office, a phrase mentioned in Kansas election law.
Taylor cited the specific line by chapter and code, but he did not actually write it out. Taylor also asked the secretary of state’s deputy (Kobach would not, it is reported, personally receive Taylor’s petition) if the letter was acceptable, and the clerk reportedly shrugged and muttered something affirmative.
But Kobach overruled his deputy.
This is not the end of the story, of course. Taylor has sued to have his name removed from the ballot, and the case has gone to the Kansas Supreme Court (arguments were heard today; a decision is expected by Friday). There is little precedent, as no major party candidate in Kansas has ever sued to get his or her name taken off a ballot, but the Democrat appears to have a couple of intangibles in his corner.
One is a legal team that now includes Marc Elias, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney who represented Al Franken, D-Minn., in his eight-month recount and battle for his Senate seat in 2008. (GOP supporters point to this as evidence that Taylor, Orman and national Democrats are all in on this ballot-winnowing deal together.)
The other is the composition of the Kansas High Court, a majority of which was appointed by the previous governor, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius.
But no matter the final decision, the optics are already influencing two Kansas races.
Yes, the Taylor withdrawal is now a hot-button issue in the Senate race. Roberts is saying that Missouri’s Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has her fingerprints all over Taylor’s move (it has been reported McCaskill urged Taylor, in a phone conversation, to drop out), invoking the memory of Quantrill’s Raid, the 1863 attack on Kansas by pro-slavery Missouri militiamen that killed 200.
(And if anyone would have a memory of Quantrill’s Raid, it would be Roberts. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
But the ballot debate is apparently also coming ‘round to bite Kobach. Last month, before Taylor and the secretary of state squared off, opinion polls had Kobach tied with or slightly ahead of his challenger, Democrat Jean Schodorf. But a survey conducted after Kobach weighed in on the ballot battle has Schodorf creeping ahead.
No one is quite calling this a referendum on the conservative revolution, but it would not be the biggest stretch in an election year that has been filled with stretches to grasp broader national meaning from various state and congressional elections.
Kobach, even before his role as secretary of state, had already acquired a bit of a name for himself as the unofficial father of the “self-deportation” plank in the 2012 Republican Party platform. And Kobach played a prominent roll in drafting Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 anti-immigration law, as well as Alabama’s HB 56, a bill at least as strict as the Arizona statute.
And beyond the races for secretary of state and U.S. Senate, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator, a conservative standard-bearer, and once thought to be a possible GOP presidential hopeful for 2016, is in a fight for his political life against Democrat Paul Davis. Brownback and the solidly Republican state legislature implemented sweeping income tax cuts that have left the red state’s budget squarely in the red. The cutbacks in services and education, as well as the hikes in regressive taxes needed to fill the hole, have revealed the real-life implications of turning Kansas into a conservative theme park.
Brownback compounded his problems by backing right-wing challengers to incumbent GOP state lawmakers — Schodorf was, herself, once the Republican whip in the Kansas Senate before a Brownback-endorsed challenger took her seat in 2012 — provoking more than 100 prominent Kansas Republicans to sign a public letter supporting Davis.
So, as the saying goes, all politics is local, but this time, the local politics possibly have national implications. For Kansas Republicans, who would like to broaden the races and tie their challengers to an unpopular president, that national eye would seem like a blessing. But when a slap against the federal government can’t help but hit their own veteran senator (and remind everyone that he pretty much lives full time in Washington, D.C.), it gets complicated. And when most other voters actually have to live in the state, and live with the policies of their native brand of conservative politics, it gets difficult for Republicans to follow the ideological (yellow brick?) road — in or out of Kansas.
Editor’s note: In addition to this post, Al Jazeera is running a three-part series examining the effect of Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies on Kansas.
And another editor’s note: Now seems like a good time to introduce Al Jazeera’s new Election 2014 page, your one stop shop for all our coverage of the races and issues this election season. In coming weeks we will have more stories on key races and important issues, building toward full coverage of the November vote.