09/08/2014 07:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Coyly Campaigning in Kansas

[Note: You'll have to forgive my somewhat-belated commentary on the shakeup in the Kansas Senate race, but I was on vacation all of last week.]

Last week, a political tornado of sorts happened in Kansas (of all places), raising the possibility of this Senate race becoming the tipping point which could decide partisan control of the Senate for the next two years. Democratic candidate Chad Taylor attempted to drop out of the race completely, clearing the field for Independent Greg Orman to take on sitting Senator Pat Roberts. Orman, however, is being coy by refusing to announce which party he'll caucus with on the all-important vote for Senate Majority Leader, should Orman win his race. If he does beat Roberts, Orman will become the third sitting Independent in the Senate.

While Democrats are usually said to have a 55-45 advantage in the current Senate, their actual number is technically "53+2," since both Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King do not call themselves Democrats, while generally caucusing with Democrats (at least, for leadership votes). In addition, before he retired, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman was forced to run as an Independent when he lost his Democratic primary. Added together, that would be four senators in the past few years who were (or are) not formally members of the Democratic or Republican parties. That's not an overwhelming amount of senators, so it'd be premature to declare it any sort of general trend, but it is nonetheless interesting in a wonky sort of way. Added to the mix was the recent news from the Alaska governor's race, where the Democratic candidate formed a fusion ticket with the Independent in the race (putting the Independent on top of the ticket, with the Democrat running for lieutenant governor).

Each case is different, of course, but the political tactic of clearing the field for the strongest non-Republican candidate seems to be a new one in this election cycle. It seems downright bizarre for the Democratic Party to "win" elections by withdrawing from them, but if it means not splitting the non-Republican vote, it could actually work to the Democrats' advantage. Roberts was the strongest candidate in a three-way race, but his poll numbers were well below 50 percent. The Democrat and Independent were both polling around 25 percent, so the tactic may indeed work, assuming all the Democratic voters pull the lever for the Independent.

This will be complicated by the fact that Chad Taylor's name will still be on the ballot. The state elections official is a Republican, and has ruled that Taylor is not allowed to withdraw his name from the ballot, by state law. So there will likely be a lot of low-information voters who vote the straight Democratic ticket -- which could rob Orman of the crucial votes he needs to beat Roberts. In other words, the tactic may fail due to Taylor's name still being on the ballot.

The bigger picture of this race (and the earlier Angus King race in Maine) gets a bit unseemly, however. King ran and (so far) Orman is running on what could be called the "coy platform" -- refusing to state which party they'll caucus with if elected. This particular tactic is meant to appeal to independent voters, who are looking for a candidate that won't be totally beholden to either party. It worked for King (who had previously been governor of Maine as an Independent), and it could also work for Orman. But the unseemly bit is what happens after the election, which could become very big news indeed if Orman becomes the pivotal vote.

You can't really call it bribery, and you can't really call it selling political influence, because no money will change hands. But what King did (and Orman will do) after being elected can be called the crassest sort of political horse-trading. The Senate, much more than the House of Representatives, is mostly run by seniority. In short: the longer you've been there, the more power you accumulate. The most visible aspect of this power is what committee assignments you get. There are many committees and subcommittees in the Senate, but not all committees are created equally. Some deal with the power of the purse, some have oversight powers, and some deal with writing arcane legislation for giant industries. Others deal with much lesser subjects, and are not seen as being nearly as powerful as taxing or spending committees (for instance). Normally, a junior senator arrives in Washington and has to be content with whatever committee assignments are doled out by the party leadership. Sometimes geography or demographics can play a role, as when a senator from a very agricultural state gets on a farm committee. But for the most part, new senators have to take what they're offered, and pay their dues in the minor committees before acquiring enough seniority to move up to the more plum assignments. Independents, however, can essentially sell their party loyalty to the highest bidder.

By not saying which party they'll caucus with, Independents leave themselves open to both parties, which can depend on which committee assignments they would like. They can jump over senators with more seniority to gain a seat on a committee that they'd normally have to wait years to attain. The voters who elect them aren't put off by this horse-trading, for the most part, because it means that their state will have more influence in the Senate than normal.

But while this leapfrogging into powerful committees could be seen as a desirable thing for a Senate candidate, it probably won't lead to a wave of candidates declaring themselves Independents in the near future. The circumstances have to be right for such a thing to successfully happen. In the first place, a state's voters have to be open to the concept of an Independent officeholder. To put this another way, the state's identity (as seen by the citizens) usually has to include a large degree of political independence. Maine and Kansas both qualify. Other states also embrace what could be called a maverick nature, as when Lisa Murkowski won a Senate seat in Alaska as a write-in candidate. But not every state truly sees itself in this manner -- Lieberman's win in Connecticut doesn't really qualify, it would seem. It also helps to be a small state (demographically), because senators from larger states already have an advantage in Washington (although not as obviously in the Senate). The upshot is that a successful Independent campaign couldn't happen everywhere, even with one of the major party candidates bowing out of the race to clear the field.

But while the citizens of Maine are already benefiting from Angus King's committee assignments (offered to him to secure his vote for Harry Reid), and while the citizens of Kansas may also benefit soon from the same dynamic, to me the horse-trading still seems more than a little opportunistic, instead of following the rules and traditions everyone else must play by. Seniority may not be the best system of apportioning power in the Senate, but it is the system that is in place for all the other senators. As I said, it's not bribery or influence-peddling, but it is definitely jumping the line. Imagine how you'd feel if you were waiting in a queue and saw someone cut the line in front of you, to put it on a very pedestrian level.

Of course, this is going to be an enormous political story if Republicans win 50 Senate seats in November, and Orman wins in Kansas. In this scenario, Democrats will be one vote short of keeping Harry Reid as the Senate's leader. If Orman caucuses with Democrats, it will give them a majority (50 votes plus Vice President Joe Biden's tie-breaking vote). If he throws in with the Republicans, it'll mean Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (assuming he survives his own race, of course). That is when the horse-trading is going to get fierce indeed. Assumably, if Democrats manage to hold onto control without the Kansas race, Orman will not be offered as powerful positions as if he is the deciding vote. If this does come to pass, it's hard to see Orman caucusing with Republicans, for two reasons: he knows his victory was made possible by the Democrat clearing the field for him; and why would he want to join the minority party rather than the majority?

This brings up a second scenario, in which the Republicans win control of the chamber without the Kansas seat. This would put both King and Orman (again, assuming he wins) in an interesting position. Would they both switch over to caucusing with Republicans, to gain seats on more-powerful committees? For instance, if Republicans win 51 seats, could they suddenly gain two more? Would we have to start reporting the Senate's makeup with an algebraic equation: 51+2 to 46+1? I should note that this assumes Bernie Sanders would still caucus with Democrats, which I feel is a pretty safe assumption.

What it all boils down to is that we may not know which party controls the Senate when the votes are all in on election night. It may be days before anyone knows whether Democrats or Republicans will control the chamber. And the decision may come down to which party offers better goodies to Greg Orman. By playing it coy throughout the campaign, he will leave himself open to all offers if he wins -- and especially if he becomes the deciding vote. While some may see this as nothing more than political hardball and successfully empowering his own state's voters, at the end of the day it still seems to me to be nothing more than selling your vote out to the highest bidder. If I were voting for some Senate candidate, I think I'd want to know which party they're going to effectively join before I cast my vote. Perhaps I'm alone in seeing it this way, but voting for such rank opportunism wouldn't really have much appeal to me.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post