It’s been a long time, if it’s ever happened at all, that Kansas has been pivotal in a national election. But the state could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2015. Polls suggest that Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is in a tough fight to win a fourth term in November against independent candidate Greg Orman, whose campaign was boosted this week by the withdrawal of the Democratic nominee. Democrats hope that Orman will caucus with their party, or at least refuse to provide the GOP with its 51st vote in the chamber. (Orman has suggested that he will caucus with the Republicans if they become the majority party without him.)
Kansas joins Georgia and Kentucky as red states where the Democrats hope to pick up seats thanks to unusually strong candidates. And if Democratic incumbents can hold on in the red states of Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, the GOP will be thwarted in its attempt to control both houses of Congress.
The New Yorker’s Sam Wang, looking solely at polling data from across the country suggesting that some of the endangered Democrats will survive, wrote on Thursday that “with Orman facing off alone against Roberts [in Kansas], the probability of Democratic control shot up to eighty-five per cent.”
But just about every other prediction model still favors the Republicans. Polls be damned, most election experts see a continuation of the recent trend in which Senate results almost always fall in line with how each state votes in presidential elections. So no matter how low his approval ratings go, Mitch McConnell will be re-elected in Kentucky. And Kansas will drop the fans to reveal the same old Republican electorate that’s been been deciding elections for decades.
(TPM’s Josh Marshall likes Orman’s chances, but he notes, “The last time Kansas elected a Democrat to the Senate was 82 years ago. And it’s happened only three times since Kansas entered the Union on the eve of the Civil War. Which, remember, is over a hundred and fifty friggin’ years ago!”)
The skeptics of a Democratic surprise in November tend to focus on each state’s “fundamentals,” as opposed to the specific candidates and campaigns. They predict that President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in red states will ultimately drag down Democrats. And FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver just can’t wrap his head around the idea that Kansas voters will go against their nature and select the more liberal of the two Senate candidates:
Although our model largely relies on polls, it also evaluates other factors on a state-by-state basis, which we refer to as the “fundamentals.” One of these is the candidates’ ideology scores. In a deeply red state like Kansas, a fairly moderate Republican like Roberts rates as much closer to the median voter than a center-left candidate like Orman. Orman has also never been elected to office before, a factor which makes a candidate more likely to underperform in his polls, perhaps because of a lack of campaign experience.
I’m a bit more persuaded by Silver than by the poll-centric Wang, but I may be influenced by the time I spend looking at election stats and seeing some very entrenched patterns. Democratic (or de facto Democratic) wins in Kansas and Kentucky just seem too far-fetched in 2014.
If they do lose the Senate, Democrats may mutter about red-state voters being so rigid that they’ll elect anyone or anything with an “R” after its name. Of course, they’re counting on taking back the Senate in 2016, based on the implausibility of any Republican being taken seriously in states like California, Hawaii, Maryland, and New York.