Joe Biden did not "blow Greg Orman's cover": He's far from a Democratic lock

Republicans think that Joe Biden has outed Kansas independent Greg Orman as a Democrat. It's not so simple

Published November 4, 2014 8:35PM (EST)

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

Republicans think they've finally nailed Greg Orman as a lock to caucus with the Democrats should he defeat Pat Roberts in the Kansas Senate race. The source of the revelation is a supposed "tell" from Vice President Biden in a radio interview this morning:

“We have a chance of picking up an independent who will be with us in the state of Kansas,” Biden said of Orman, who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in one of the few races that national Democrats are on offense. The clip was quickly blasted out by Republicans. [...]

“They will hold the Senate. I think we win Alaska, which the pundits are saying we lose. I think we win North Carolina, which is a tough race. I think we win New Hampshire, in fact I’m confident we win New Hampshire,” [Biden] said. “Nunn is going to win Georgia. I think there will be runoff probably with Mary Landrieu, although she could win it today in Louisiana. So I think we’re going end up with 52 about, in that range, Democratic votes.”

This comes from a Politico piece titled, "Joe Biden: Greg Orman will join with Democrats." Conservatives are broadcasting a similar analysis of the comments. The Weekly Standard -- "Biden Blows Greg Orman's Cover" -- writes that "Biden stated definitively that Orman 'will be with us' if he's elected." The Washington Times similarly declares that "Joe Biden snitches on independent Greg Orman, says he’ll caucus with Democrats." And then conservative Twitter is being conservative Twitter.

It all gives off the impression that Biden and Orman are communicating via some secret back-channel, perhaps a set of children's G.I. Joe walkie-talkies, about their plan to trick the voters of Kansas into electing one hella Democratic Senator. You can understand why Republicans would want to present the comments as such: it would be better for them if Roberts won and the party didn't have to deal with the minor risk that Orman presents to their majority. We'd guess, though, that Joe Biden actually has no idea what's going on inside Greg Orman's head and has little leverage to dictate instructions to him.

But let's look at Biden's line again: "We have a chance of picking up an independent who will be with us." Notice that word "chance." There's a "chance" that Orman will be "with them." Seems like a fairly important qualifier, there. More broadly he's outlining an extraordinarily optimistic scenario in which Democrats could retain control of the Senate.

The Republican campaign to "out" Orman as a sure thing for Senate Democrats is, again, understandable as a strategy, but also a bit amusing. The American electorate circa 2014 is among the most cynical in history. People will believe that politicians are capable of any self-serving dastardly deed imaginable. And yet here we have a politician in Greg Orman who's advertising his cynical motives -- he says he'll caucus with whichever party is in the majority, because then he'll have more power -- and people can't quite fully believe him. He's openly saying that he's just hungry for power!

In the narrow scenario that Orman is the deciding vote in Senate control, it's hard to tell which party he'd caucus with. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid would engage in the mother of all bribery contests in order to lure him. But in the more likely scenario that Republicans will already have a majority without him, it's not so difficult to take Orman at his word and assume that he'd caucus with Republicans. Sure, they've talked a lot of trash about him during the campaign. They can put all that behind them. It would be in Greg Orman's interests to caucus with the majority, since being in the majority is better than being in the minority. And if you plan to run for reelection in Kansas in six years, it would be much easier to do so as a Republican instead of as a Democrat. The Kansas GOP is going through some problems this cycle, but it's not going to be this way forever. Having "Democrat" affixed to your name still is not a great long-term political career strategy in Kansas.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2014 Elections Editor's Picks Election Day Greg Orman Joe Biden Kansas Pat Roberts Senate