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Democrats Just Put a GOP Senate Seat in Jeopardy—And Republicans Want to Suppress the Vote to Save It

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Kansas Republican Senator Pat Robert’s seat might be in jeopardy in November. So too might Republican chances of winning back the Senate. And it’s all because of the huge shakeup that has taken place in the Kansas race this week, which has left state Republicans searching for legal remedies to a political crisis.

Roberts barely won a primary last month against a Tea Party novice, Dr. Milton Wolf, a radiologist who derailed his prospects by posting x-rays on Facebook during the campaign. Roberts no longer possesses a home in Kansas, which can be fatal in Senate elections. Ask former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. But Roberts was favored to win re-election this November because his opposition was divided between a Democrat, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, and an Independent ex-Democrat Greg Orman. In polls, Taylor and Orman split the vote against Roberts.

Initially, Taylor appeared to be the stronger candidate, but since the primary August 5, Orman has showed himself to be the far more formidable challenger and is now leading Roberts when he goes head to head with him in the polls. Orman, a millionaire, could help finance his own campaign, while Taylor was having difficulty raising any money at all. But another factor that lay behind Taylor’s difficulties as a candidate and that led to his withdrawal earlier this week. He had become persona non grata among many female Kansas Democrats; and his troubles among these voters threatened to grow.

Two issues dogged Taylor. First, in 2011, Taylor, in his capacity as district attorney, decided in response to a ten percent budget cut, to stop prosecuting misdemeanor cases that involved domestic battery and violence against women. That created an outcry among Kansas women’s groups. Then the next year, Taylor and the District Attorney’s office were hit by gender and race discrimination suits, several of which remain unresolved. 

With Kansas’s Democratic Party unaccountably failing to recruit a first-tier candidate against Roberts, Taylor won the Democratic nomination on August 5 by default. He defeated by 4,500 votes a Lawrence attorney who raised $601 for his campaign. But he soon faced pressure within his own party to withdraw in favor of Orman, who is, in Kansas’s terms, a moderate Democrat who briefly ran as a Democrat against Roberts in 2008 before dropping out. Women for Kansas, a group organized to oppose Governor Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, endorsed Orman. Taylor was also having trouble raising money—only $110,000 to $1.9 million for Roberts and $500,000 for Orman.

Some papers are crediting Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill for pushing Taylor out of the race, but knowledgeable sources in Kansas say that the final blow came when Democratic congressional candidate Jim Sherow, who feared the women-led protests against Taylor’s candidacy would grow, announced that he was endorsing Orman. Says Chris Reeves, a Kansas City Network Consultant who works with Democratic candidates: “The moment Sherow, a Democrat, said he couldn’t endorse him, it was over.” 

But Kansas Republicans, who now face the prospect of losing their first senate race since 1932, are not taking Taylor’s departure lying down. Taylor dropped out, he claims, under assurances from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office that his official withdrawal would remove his name from the ballot. But the Kansas Secretary of State is Kris Kobach—a veteran GOP vote suppressor and one of the intellectual forces behind “self-deportation.” He serves on Roberts’ honorary campaign committee. And on Thursday, he pulled an apparent bait and switch. Taylor’s name, he concluded, will remain on the ballot. 

Kobach claims that Taylor can only withdraw if he has declared himself incapable of fulfilling the duties of office, as required by law for the state to remove his name from the ballot. Taylor’s letter is unambiguous in intent. He withdrew his nomination, “pursuant” to the section of the law that requires him to declare himself incapable. But he didn’t actually say anything explicit about his ability to discharge the duties of a senator. 

The case will now go to the courts. Election law guru Rick Hasen writes that though Taylor has a case, the question of what the courts will do is a tossup. If they rule for Kobach, then Democrats will have to undertake the awkward task of asking voters not to vote for the Democrat on the ballot. But they’ll also have vouchsafed the strategy Republicans always employ when they fear the electorate isn’t on their side. Normally that means making it hard for Democrats to vote in the first place. This time around it means trying to trick low-information Democrats into voting for a candidate who isn't running. But it's still voter suppression.