Independent candidate now top contender in one of country's most conservative states

Nate Cohn -- The New York Times 

It has been clear for some time that Pat Roberts, a Republican senator from Kansas, was in a lot more trouble than he ought to be in a deeply Republican state. Plagued by residency issues, he won the Republican nomination with only 48 percent of the vote, and polls showed a surprisingly tight race in one of the most conservative states in the country.

Mr. Roberts’s position just got a lot worse. His Democratic opponent, Chad Taylor, has dropped out of the race, setting up a one-on-one contest between Mr. Roberts and Greg Orman, an independent candidate and businessman. A Democratic candidate dropping out of a race is usually good news for a Republican. Not this time.

Mr. Roberts was leading in part because Mr. Taylor and Mr. Orman were splitting a fairly sizable anti-Roberts vote. In a SurveyUSA poll last month, Mr. Roberts held just 37 percent of support, while Mr. Taylor and Mr. Orman won a combined 52 percent, but trailed at 32 and 20 percent, respectively.

With Mr. Taylor out of the race, Mr. Orman will have a chance to consolidate the anti-Roberts vote — and he is clearly better positioned to do so. Mr. Taylor was mainly winning partisan Democrats who will almost certainly oppose Mr. Roberts.

Mr. Orman, on the other hand, was showing far broader appeal, favored by 18 percent of Republicans and by 38 percent of independents in the last SurveyUSA poll. Mr. Orman, in other words, was already positioned to carry the Republican-leaning independent voters necessary to win — if only those supporters could be paired with the Democrats who now seem extremely likely to move in his direction.

The unusual circumstances create quite a bit of uncertainty, and The Upshot’s Senate forecasting model is expected to give Mr. Orman decent odds. It would not be at all surprising if the next polls show Mr. Orman with an early lead. The question is whether he can hold it.

The case for a Roberts win is straightforward. Mr. Orman is a fairly liberal candidate, and Kansans typically do not support relatively liberal candidates. He even ran as a Democratic candidate for Senate in 2008. Mr. Orman hasn’t said whether he would vote for Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell for Senate majority leader — and the possibility that Mr. Orman could cast a decisive vote for Democrats will surely be an issue.

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