GOP's Kansas fiasco continues: A desperate scramble to get a Democratic opponent

The GOP's hit man in Kansas, Kris Kobach, will do all it takes to get Democrats to field a Senate candidate

Published September 19, 2014 7:06PM (EDT)

Kris Kobach       (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Kris Kobach (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The strange Senate dance in Kansas continues, with each player and party acting on its rationally contrarian self-interest in pursuit of a Senate majority. Republicans in Kansas are determined to force the Democrats to field a candidate, while Democrats won't rest until their ballot line is vacant this November. And then in the middle of it all is independent candidate Greg Orman, who knows he's got it made.

Democrats won the latest battle late yesterday afternoon. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled against Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had mischievously declared that he wouldn't remove erstwhile Democratic candidate Chad Taylor's name from the ballot, as Taylor requested. The court found that Taylor's letter of withdrawal did, indeed, satisfy legal requirements. For now, this narrows the race to a two-man contest between Orman and Roberts, one that's either neck-and-neck or lean-Orman in a state that's elected Republicans in every Senate election since 1932.

But Kobach isn't finished yet. After yesterday's ruling dropped, he reiterated his position that Democrats need to field a candidate on the ballot. He went so far as to move the mailing date for absentee ballots back one week to Sept. 27, giving the Democrats eight days to somehow, some way, put forth a nominee. That in itself is a legally questionable move, since the law states that absentee ballots need to be mailed no later than 45 days before the election. Kobach, however, argues that "federal law would allow him to postpone the mailing date of overseas absentee ballots as long as the ballots had a 45-day window to be counted."

The spectacle of Kansas Democrats fighting tooth-and-nail to have no Democratic Senate candidate this year and Kansas Republicans working equally as hard to ensure themselves a Democratic opponent is producing all sorts of comically cynical quotes for posterity. For just one example, feast your eyes on how Roberts' campaign manager responded to the ruling yesterday: The court is disenfranchising "Democrat" voters! We all know how concerned the Republican Party is these days about the disenfranchisement of "Democrat" voters:

“Today, the Kansas Supreme Court deliberately, and for political purposes, disenfranchised over 65,000 voters,” the Republican’s campaign manager Corey Bliss said in a statement. “In a bow to Senators Claire McCaskill and Harry Reid, liberal activist Supreme Court justices have decided that if you voted in the Democrat Primary on August 5th, your vote does not matter, your voice does not matter, and you have no say in who should be on the ballot on Election Day.”


So Democrats, according to Kobach, have eight days to select a new Senate nominee or he may take them to court again. What's your play if you're the Kansas Democratic Party?

The most obvious would be to ignore this joker and just spend the next eight days doing absolutely nothing. Go on a relaxing vacation on one of Kansas' many lovely beaches (??) or something. If Kobach takes them to court after Sept. 27, they can go to court. But given how rapidly we're closing in on Election Day, Kobach could just decide to drop the thing. As election law professor Rick Hasen writes, Kobach could conclude that it "may not be in Republicans’ political interests to let this fester any more."

Another tempting option for Democrats would be to try to place Orman on the Democratic line. Not only would Orman get two slots on the ballot, it would also be hilarious to watch Kobach then try to claim that that also is illegal. But this would have its own risks -- if Orman is on the Democratic line, it would firm up Republican charges that Orman is just another rubber-stamp liberal for the nefarious Barack Obama/Harry Reid/United Nations Shock Troop gun-grabbing gay communist agenda. National Democrats are all too aware of the risks of overtly supporting Orman with endorsements and cash, so for now they're following a strict code of omertà regarding his candidacy. "I don’t know anything about Kansas," Harry Reid winked at Politico, while Sen. Chuck Schumer stated that "[Orman]'s an independent and he’s running as an independent not as a Democrat. It’s that simple."

Would that it were that simple. Right now the Real Clear Politics Senate forecast shows Democrats holding 49 Senate seats to Republicans' 50, with Orman leading the Kansas race and thus being the decider of which party controls the Senate. Sure, he's the Democrats' best chance in Kansas, but there's absolutely no reason to assume that he'd caucus with the blue team if he won. If he swung the chamber to the Democrats, he could well be toast when he's up for reelection the next time in a red state like Kansas. He'd also be going against the momentum of the current cycle -- Republicans would be picking up a lot of seats, yet he'd decide to name Democrats the ultimate victors. All we know is that, if Orman does win and determine control of the Senate, he'll trigger the bidding war to end all bidding wars between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. They'll offer him the chairmanships of every committee and the biggest office space and resolutions declaring Kansas America's greatest state and any new bridges or pet projects he could ever dream of. It's good to be Greg Orman, and he knows it.

This is a highly unorthodox situation.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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