High five or self-defense?

How Kansas Became Strangest Story in Politics

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How did Kansas become perhaps the largest question mark in the battle for control of the Senate -- and host to a closely contested election for Governor, too?

To recap: Republican Senator Pat Roberts was polling poorly against both Democratic nominee Chad Taylor and independent candidate Greg Orman. With Orman the stronger one-on-one candidate against Roberts, Taylor dropped out of the race. Yesterday, Republicans lost a bid to keep Taylor on the ballot; now they're trying to force Democrats to name a replacement, although it seems quite unlikely they can make that stick. (Parties fail to nominate candidates all the time, including in Kansas.)

So here's what we know:

1. Polling shows Orman leading the Senate race.

2. The Democratic Party is informally backing Orman, even though Orman could wind up caucusing with the Senate Republicans if he wins.

3. Republican Governor Sam Brownback is terribly unpopular, trailing nondescript Democratic nominee Paul Davis in recent polling, although the contest remains very competitive.

4. Kansas basically never elects Democratic Senators; is solidly Republican in presidential elections; but since 1957 has elected a Democrat as governor a bit more than half the time.

Now, here's what we don't know:

1. We have no idea what the front-runner in the Senate race -- Orman -- would do if elected. He has said he would caucus with the majority party (whichever it is). But that's hardly binding, and what if his choice determines which party holds a Senate majority?

2. Now that Orman is the de facto Democratic candidate, will Kansans start treating him as one, prompting their return to the Roberts camp? This is a highly unusual contest. It's not clear that standard polling can project the full impact of the race's recent shifts.

3. Why exactly is Brownback so unpopular? Jonathan Chait has a good post detailing all the things that have gone wrong for the governor: Kansas hasn't been creating jobs as successfully as neighboring states; Brownback's tax cuts have produced budget troubles; and he purged moderate Republican legislators, leading some moderate Republicans to back his Democratic challenger. That's a lot of different factors, with considerations of ideology, policy and competence overlapping. Is Brownback just too conservative? Do voters think his policies don't work? Or is it personal -- about a governor who just can't get along with others? (And let's not rule out bad luck: An economy can struggle for reasons having little to do with a governor's policies.)

4. Why is Roberts so unpopular? Is he a victim of spillover from Brownback's problems? Or are there other reasons?

The answers to these questions have different implications. Democrats, as Chait says, are desperate for evidence that strong conservative governance produces policy and political failures. If the problem is merely that Brownback and Roberts are disliked, or a victim of bad luck, well, that too is interesting.

One of the most interesting questions is why Kansas Democrats over the years have been able to win the statehouse but not Senate seats. It could be coincidence. Or perhaps something about federal elections reinforces party loyalty, at least in Kansas. I'm unaware of any research that explains such a dichotomy. (The Dakotas are even more curious, often electing Democrats to the Senate while voting strongly Republican in presidential elections.)

We probably won't get answers to all of these questions for a while, but I'll be looking for clues in the weeks leading up to November.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net