This is not the next liberal icon: Why Dems shouldn't get too excited about Greg Orman

Dems hope Greg Orman will beat Pat Roberts in Kansas, and then be a reliable progressive -- but here's the reality

By Jim Newell

Published September 30, 2014 2:49PM (EDT)

Greg Orman and his wife Sybil     (AP/Charlie Riedel)
Greg Orman and his wife Sybil (AP/Charlie Riedel)

The last couple of weeks have brought worrisome news for Democrats' chances of retaining Senate control this November. Races in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Kentucky and Georgia appear to be slipping away. States that Democrats expected to win fairly easily, in Iowa and Colorado, are also moving in the Republicans' direction. Nate Silver says it's not quite time for Democrats to "panic." That's reasonable insofar as it's hard to see what productive ends an established party-wide sense of "panic" would accomplish -- it's not like Democrats haven't been trying. But let's just say that Sen. Harry Reid and his conference ought to start laying out a busy lame-duck schedule before the Dark Ages set in.

Amid all this bright news for the GOP, there have been a measly two positive developments for the Democratic Party's Senate forecast. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan is enjoying a modest, but by no means impregnable, lead over Republican Thom Tillis. (It was not so long ago that pundits thought control of the Senate might come down to this race, but at this point, a Tillis come-from-behind victory would only be a cherry-on-top for the GOP.) And then there's the chaos in Kansas, where a confluence of uniquely local circumstances, manifested in the form of independent candidate Greg Orman, have raised the impossible scenario of the Republican Party losing a Senate seat in that state for the first time since the early 1930s.

It's perfectly understandable for Democrats, or anyone who dislikes the Republican Party, for that matter, to get excited about the prospect of a Republican incumbent somehow losing in Kansas. The most recent polling in Kansas shows Orman with a comfortable lead over Pat Roberts, too. But the "most recent polling" isn't all that recent -- it's a couple of weeks old. And in those past couple of weeks, the Republicans have awoken to the threat in Kansas and begun acting on a vicious strategy to save Roberts' seat.

Don't get too excited about Greg Orman, Democrats. There are only varying levels of disappointment down the road.

While all of the other competitive Senate races have been going on for a while and the electorate has been duly sorted, the Kansas race, as Nate Silver writes, "is still in its formative stages." Republicans have only begun their campaign to "define" Orman in the past week or two. This race is just beginning, and so far we're only on "Chapter One" of the Republicans' opposition research book against Orman, according to new Roberts campaign manager Corry Bliss.

Orman's response to "Chapter One" -- regarding his "business and personal relationships with Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs board member who was convicted in 2012 of insider trading and is serving a federal prison sentence" -- doesn't speak too well of Orman's dexterity in response to attacks. Instead of playing down this HIGHLY TOXIC  RELATIONSHIP ("Light shed on Orman’s dealings with felon," the local headlines read), Orman, strangely enough, is saying that he's still as chummy as ever with Gupta. Here's what he told the Washington Post:

In the interview, Orman said he was “absolutely shocked” by Gupta’s fraud conviction.

“He made a mistake, and ultimately he’s paying for it,” Orman said. “But I am not the kind of person who abandons a good friend when they make a mistake. And so I’ve been a friend to him since this came out, and I’m still a friend of his.”

This is the kind of honesty that people always say they'd like to hear from politicians in the abstract. In reality, though, they don't want to hear it from politicians at all. "ORMAN 'STILL A FRIEND' OF HORRIBLE WALL STREET FELON" is the beginning of a tremendously effective attack ad. Or perhaps a whole series of them! Good grief.

As Chapter One gives way to Chapters Two, Three, Four, Fifty, from where will the pro-Orman cavalry come to back him up? How about from ... nowhere. While Roberts has every leading Republican politician, the national Republican Party, and God-knows-how-many conservative outside groups rushing to prop him up, Greg Orman has... Greg Orman... to rely on. The Democratic Party is keeping its hands off Orman and Orman is keeping his hands off the Democratic Party, lest his reputation as an independent be tarnished through partisan associations. But the Wall Street Journal reports, the downside to a campaign founded on non-partisanship is that you don't get the benefit of a partisan machine's infrastructure.

And who is lining up to help Mr. Orman? Hardly anyone—and not the Democratic Party or its allied groups, at least so far.

That is one of the challenges Mr. Orman faces in running as an independent candidate: As Republicans—like potential 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who will appear with Mr. Roberts Monday—race to rescue the embattled Mr. Roberts, who is trailing in the polls, Mr. Orman can't rely on the machinery of any political party to help him respond.

"The trick is to have that independent brand, but you don't have the resources. Traditionally the resources come with a partisan affiliation,'' said Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, who was elected in 2010 as an independent and is now a Democrat. To win, he said, Mr. Orman will need backing from established voter-turnout organizations, such as labor groups.

There is one prominent figure who could help secure an Orman win -- though not on terms that would help Democrats. Milton Wolf, who only narrowly lost the GOP primary to Roberts this summer, is reportedly considering endorsing Orman. Endorsements aren't as powerful as they're made out to be, but if Wolf throws his lot behind Orman, that could prevent a lot of undecided Republicans who voted for Wolf in the GOP primary from "coming home" to Roberts on Election Day. But in case Democrats think that Wolf, a Tea Partyer, is suddenly their friend: He's not. According to Politico, "to win Wolf’s endorsement, Orman must first agree to caucus with the Senate GOP if he were to defeat Roberts in the general election."

If Orman wins, he'll most likely caucus as a Republican. That's because he's pledged to caucus with whichever party is in the majority, and as things stand, Republicans will already win the majority with or without a Roberts win. Orman won't say which party he'll caucus with in the event he's the tie-breaking vote. In that scenario, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will engage in a hilarious "Bachelor"-esque competition to bribe their way into Orman's heart. But as the overall Senate map has shifted in Republicans' favor, the probability of Orman playing spoiler has dropped precipitously. "In about 7 percent of our forecast model’s simulations," Silver writes, "Democrats held the Senate solely because they won Kansas and Orman elected to caucus with them."

Democrats rightly will be ecstatic if this 7-percent scenario holds true and they retain control of the Senate. Whatever love liberals would send Orman's way, though, would be short-lived. Greg Orman would rapidly rise to Ben Nelson- or Joe Lieberman-like levels of infamy among progressives. Orman describes himself as "fiscally responsible and socially tolerant" -- he's fine with abortion and same-sex marriage but is something of a deficit hawk otherwise. He "voices alarm about long-term deficit challenges posed by entitlement spending" and "said he was sympathetic to arguments put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan." Senate control is important. Yet having this guy as the deciding vote for the Democrats would ... suck? It certainly wouldn't not suck.

Pat Roberts losing his Senate seat is an entertaining and surprising prospect and has encouraged plenty of reasonable optimism among Democrats. But it's far from certain that his lead will hold, that he'd caucus with Democrats, or that if he became a Democrat, he'd be a beloved figure among liberals. Democrats shouldn't set their expectations too high.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2014 Elections Democrats Editor's Picks Gop Greg Orman Harry Reid Kansas Midterms Pat Roberts Senate