The chances of Greg Orman defeating Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas just got a whole lot better. A lawsuit which tried to force the Kansas Democratic Party to field a candidate in the race just essentially got laughed out of court, which means there will be no Democrat on the ballot at all. Roberts will be on the ballot as the incumbent Republican, Orman will appear as an Independent, and there will also be a third candidate, Libertarian Randall Batson. But no Democrat will appear.
Democrats are actually cheering this outcome, because it increases the chances that a non-Republican will win the seat, ousting a senator whom few expected would even be vulnerable in 2014. This makes the path for Republicans gaining control of the Senate a little harder, which is why Democrats are happy with the court ruling. However, this joy can only be seen as a mark of how desperate Democrats currently are, in the battle for control of the Senate.
Orman's chances for victory look pretty good, at least for now. He is polling five points ahead of Roberts, but the Republicans have launched a major damage control effort to try to save Roberts's seat. Party bigwigs are flocking to the state to support Roberts, and money is pouring in as well. How this affects the polling remains to be seen, but we should know within a few weeks whether it has done Roberts any good or not.
Orman is running on what might be called the "opportunist" ticket, since he has stated that he'll caucus with whichever party is in the majority, but remains mum on what he'll do if his vote becomes the determining one to decide party control of the chamber. If the election leaves the Senate with 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats (or, more accurately, 47 plus the two other Independents who caucus with them) and Orman wins Kansas, then there will be a rather unseemly bidding war waged between Republicans and Democrats, as they fall over each other to offer Roberts plum committee assignments and guaranteed votes on items on his personal agenda. The chances of this outcome are anyone's guess, at this point.
It is tempting to imagine that this could be the start of some new trend of Independents winning Senate seats and causing a sort of quasi-parliamentary balance of power, where the two major parties have to outbid each other for the support of a growing number of Independents. This probably won't happen, for a number of reasons.
The first is that it is hard to campaign statewide without a party apparatus behind you. Roberts is able to call on the Republican Party for help, and everyone from Bob Dole to Sarah Palin has responded. Orman doesn't have this going for him. In fact, if Democrats even tried to offer public support for Orman, it would probably not help him much and might even backfire. Roberts has become a creature of Washington (he doesn't even own a house in Kansas any more), making the race one of "insider versus outsider." Orman is also running a "youth versus old age" campaign, which plays into his status as fresh new outsider running to shake up Washington. Roberts barely won a primary challenge from a Tea Partier, and the race was so hard-fought that the Tea Party organizations in the state are not exactly rushing to throw their support behind Roberts right now. All of this -- plus the Democratic candidate bowing out of the race to give Orman a chance -- adds up to a very unique situation that likely won't be repeated in any other state in future races.
Even if Roberts wins, if he doesn't turn out to be the deciding vote then the parties will be much less generous in offering him goodies to gain his vote in their caucus. There's no guarantee that any Independent candidate in any future race will become the balance-of-power vote either, so while Roberts may indeed wind up getting wooed by both parties, the situation likely won't repeat itself for anyone else.
So even if Roberts does become the third non-partisan senator, his win likely won't mean a wave of viable Independent candidates will appear in 2016 or beyond. Each of the three Independents has their own rather unique set of circumstances which probably don't apply in other states. Bernie Sanders is to the left of the Democratic Party, which plays well in Vermont -- but there are few other states where someone like him could win. Angus King of Maine had already served as an Independent governor, so the state's voters knew and loved him already -- but there aren't a whole lot of Independents with that kind of statewide track record to run on. There are always self-financed billionaire candidates, but they rarely win more than a protest vote in Senate elections, unless they run as either Republicans or Democrats.
Greg Orman is not guaranteed to win in November -- the massive effort to save Roberts may bear fruit for the Republicans (especially if he can woo the Tea Partiers back). If Orman does win, he may not become the deciding vote for partisan control of the chamber. Even if he does and even if Harry Reid convinces him to caucus with the Democrats, as an Independent he likely won't be a consistent Democratic vote on important issues (Orman is truly independent, as he has supported both Democratic and Republican candidates in past years). Orman may even play both sides against each other for every important vote (which he could easily get away with if he is the swing vote to pass crucial bills).
That's a lot of "ifs" for Democrats. An Orman victory may well wind up deciding if Harry Reid keeps control of the Senate, but even if that comes to pass it may only mean Reid gets to keep his gavel -- it likely won't mean Reid can reliably drum up a majority vote on every issue. To end on a pun, it's a mighty thin reed for Democrats (and Reid) to cling to.
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