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Strange Times in Kansas

The Democrats aren’t even running a senatorial candidate in Kansas, the conventional wisdom is that the Republican is therefore more likely to lose, and it goes to show how very convoluted the state’s politics are at the moment.
There was a Democratic candidate in the race, duly nominated by a relative handful of voters in a primary where all the action was on the Republican side, but on Thursday he dropped out of the race without stating any particular reason. Our best guess is that with little money, less name recognition, and the nomination of a party that’s quite unpopular in these parts he simply decided to forgo the prolongated embarrassment of running a losing race. Ordinarily this would further ensure the already inevitable re-election of the entrenched Republican incumbent, but these are not ordinary times.
In this case the entrenched Republican incumbent, Sen. Pat Roberts, is not popular within his party. Although he has a respectable rating of 86 percent from the American Conservative Union, and has been far higher during the age of Obama, that heretical 14 percent has riled the Kansas conservatives. Over all those years in Washington Roberts has racked up a lot of debt ceiling increases and back room bargains and the sort of business as usual that Kansas’ rock-ribbed Republicans are now revolting against, and he survived a mud-slinging primary with less than 50 percent of the vote only because the anti-incumbent sentiment was split between a strong but tarnished challenger and a couple of no-names who were so little known that many people knew nothing bad about them and thus decided to award them a protest vote. Despite this desultory primary the Republicans had reason to hope that Roberts could wash off the mud and rally the base with the valid argument that he is far more conservative than the alternatives, and let the anti-incumbent sentiment split between the Democrat and the Libertarian and the independent who were crowding the ballot.
The departure of the Democrat is a boon to that independent, however, and that independent was already leading Roberts in the polls. He’s an Olathe businessman named Greg Orman, and according to his widely disseminated advertisements he’s all about non-partisan practical solutions and common sense and all the other focus group-tested cliches. There’s enough talk in those ads about balanced budgets and fighting the Washington establishment to imply that he’s a conservative, but he ran for the Senate as a Democrat in 2008, he’s been suspiciously coy about which party he would caucus with as a Senator, and the Democrats here and elsewhere seem quite pleased with the prospect that he might wind up denying the Republicans another seat in such a supposedly safe state as Kansas.
The Roberts campaign has already started deploying its considerable war chest with the message that Orman is a “closet Democrat,” which seems wise. Talk of businessmen and common sense and practical solutions always plays well in Kansas, and that nonsense about non-partisanship has eternal appeal to those apolitical voters who can’t quite understand why the mutually exclusive political philosophies of the two parties won’t allow them to get along nicely and do all the simple things that would surely make everything right, so Orman must be pressed for some specificity. We would be surprised if Orman’s common sense and practical solutions were conservative enough to garner an 86 percent rating from the ACU, and stunned if he proved anything but a partisan Democrat, and even the most disgruntled Republican should be willing to forgive Roberts’ sins against conservatism when offered that alternative. To whatever extent Orman does try to veer right of Roberts it will only diminish the enthusiasm of those Democrats who have been abandoned by their candidate. There’s still a possibility that the Democrat will be on the ballot even without a campaign, something to with a Kansas law that requires some specific reason for dropping out, and with the minuscule Libertarian vote splitting more or less equally between the free-market types and the dope-smokers it would still be the four-way race that supposedly favored Roberts.
Orman could try to exploit Roberts’ unhappy reputation in the state as an establishment sort of Republican, but it’s hard to say how that might play in these unpredictable days on the prairie. While the too-establishment Roberts finds himself in the fight of his life the incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback also finds himself vulnerable in the polls and largely because he’s been such an unabashedly tax-cutting and down-sizing Republican radical. Brownback’s feuds with the “arts community” and the teachers’ unions and the public sector at large have provoked an energized and well-organized opposition, a sizable minority of his own party’s primary electorate preferred a more polite and well-bheaved young woman who barely campaigned at all, and the Democrats around here are giddy with the expectation that a State Representative from the commie college town of Lawrence will vanquish their hated right-wing foe.
They might be right, and Kansas might turn out to be that unexpected Democratic triumph in what is otherwise expected to be a bleak election cycle. There are those polls, after all, and these are undeniably strange times. Still, we’re not putting much stock in polls that were taken before Labor Day when people were still wearing white shoes and straw hats and paying little attention to the state’s suddenly convoluted politics. The state still feels like a conservative and Republican and generally sensible jurisdiction, as it has been almost without interruption since the Republican abolitionists won that shooting war with with the Democrat slavers back in the Bleeding Kansas days, and a gut instinct suggests that it will return to form after all the momentary fussiness is dissipated. The Democratic president remains palpably unpopular here, his party is held in the same disrepute, Roberts’ sullied record is more in in opposition than any of his opponents, Brownback’s feuds with the “arts community” and the teachers’ unions and the public sector at large were all necessary, and better an establishment Republican such as Roberts as a fire-breathing right-winger such as Brownback than any old openly or closeted Democrat.
The state’s media won’t be of much of help, as they all hang out with the “arts community” and the teachers’ unions and the public sector at large, but the Republicans are well-funded and have plenty of unflattering photos of President Barack Obama to show juxtaposed against their opponents in saturation advertising. Money and media attention will pour into the state from Democrats hopeful of denting such a deeply Republican state, but that will only rile the natives. Both Roberts and Brownback will have to campaign well, but they’ll always having the advantage of making their arguments to a Republican state. We might be wrong, as we sometimes are, but we still like the Republicans’ chances here in Kansas.

— Bud Norman

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