Kansas, Bastion of Democratic Hope Since About 10 Minutes Ago

The new USA Today/Suffolk poll is like a fresh keg arriving at the party.
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Right now there's a happy surplus of progressive/liberal profiles of Kansas politics, appearing from Mother Jones's "What's the Matter with Sam Brownback?" to The New Republic's "Here's What's the Matter with Kansas." (Sly references to Tom Frank's 2005 era-definer have overtaken Wizard of Oz references as the go-to headline jokes about Kansas.) The new USA Today/Suffolk poll is like a fresh keg arriving at the party. Incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts and Governor Sam Brownback are both narrowly down. This isn't occurring in a vacuum; it's been two weeks since Roberts replaced his sleepy campaign staff and a week after Brownback allies leaked word that Paul Davis, the Democratic legislator who has steadily led the governor in polls, was caught at a strip club. Doing nothing illegal. When he was 26 years old.

Brownback's trouble augers very well for Greg Orman, the independent candidate challenging Roberts. The reasons why can be found in Phil Rucker's piece about the calvary of Republicans plunging into Kansas to destroy Orman's "independent" rep.

“Anybody with a liberal record like Greg’s . . . that’s not independence. That’s someone who’s trying to snooker you, Kansas,” Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential nominee, said Thursday in Independence.

Palin’s 2008 running mate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), told voters a day earlier in suburban Overland Park: “Let’s be honest — he’s a Democrat. He walks like a duck and he quacks like a duck and he is a duck.”

Robert J. Dole, a former Senate Republican leader and 91-year-old Kansas legend, said Monday night in Dodge City, “There’s a multimillionaire who claims he’s an independent, but really [he’s] in the other party.”

In Kinsley on Tuesday, after reporters asked whether he trusted Orman to govern as an independent, Roberts said, “All of a sudden, if there’s a metamorphosis and the caterpillar changed — why, I just don’t think that’s in the cards.”

Leaving aside the disbelief about a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, the strategy is obvious: Portray Orman as a Democrat, and Kansas will remember that they usually vote against those sorts of people.

Okay. Then — what about Brownback? According to the toplines of the poll, the Republican governor is viewed favorably by 39 percent of Kansans. President Barack Obama (whose mother's family originated in Kansas) has a 41 percent favorable rating, as does Democratic governor-turned-first-HHS Secretary of the Obamacare era, Kathleen Sebelius. The Republican-dominated legislature, which swung right in 2012 after conservatives beat moderate incumbents in primaries, is at 32 percent. You might conclude that Kansas voters are not ready to race back to the Republicans.

And you could have concluded that six weeks ago. That was when the Davis camp secured the endorsements of more than 100 moderate Republicans, and the press caught on to the schism between the GOP -- the same that helped elect Sebelius, 12 years ago, after a right-winger took the Republican primary for governor. Reporters have returned from Kansas with books full of anecdotes in which Republican-leaning voters say dark things about the turn in the party. 

At the start of 2013, David Brooks published some intriguing ruminations about how the GOP could win elections in states where it had been wiped out. It needed a new wing, which would differ from the Southern-dominated GOP "the way the Westin is different than the Sheraton." Maybe Kansas Democrats have figured out a way to win statewide again — put an independent on the ballot, and benefit from a Republican schism.

Meanwhile, Democrats have prevailed against a nuisance lawsuit insisting they name a new candidate for Senate. The party withdrew its candidate after Orman surged; Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has lost ground in his own race since attempting, haphazardly and in vain, to stop that.

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