Upheaval in Kansas Senate as election official rules Dem can't withdraw

Greg Nash

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) has denied Democrat Chad Taylor’s request to be removed from the Kansas Senate ballot. 

His Thursday decision means Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) will face three candidates on the ballot this fall — Taylor, independent Greg Orman and libertarian Randall Batson — boosting the vulnerable senator’s reelection prospects.

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Now, Taylor could siphon off enough anti-Roberts votes from Orman, who’s been surging in the race and is now seen by Democrats as their best shot to take Roberts down, to deliver the senator an opening for a win.

Kobach told reporters that, after evaluating state election law statutes, his legal team found that Taylor did not meet the law’s requirement to provide sufficient “evidence he would be incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected.”

“Short of some sort of injunction or some sort of judicial action barring the state from proceeding, the decision is made,” Kobach said.

Kansas Democrats were up in arms, and Taylor himself said shortly after Kobach announced his decision that he’s going to contest it, noting the fact he was told by an elections official the document he submitted Wednesday was sufficient to remove him from the ballot.

“I am planning to challenge the ruling of the Kansas Secretary of State, who serves on Pat Roberts’ Honorary Committee,” Taylor said in a statement.

Democrats are claiming similar situations have occured in other local races, where a candidate has removed themselves from the ballot without indicating they were unable to serve, have gone unchallenged.

It’s still unclear what a legal challenge would entail, however, or how long they’ll have to file a complaint, but the window appears to be narrowing by the day.

Kobach said Thursday that because military ballots have to be sent out 45 days before the election, and printing takes some time, “everything has to be set by September 18.”

One Democratic operative in the state, Chris Reeves, said he expects some sort of challenge soon.

“Several candidates on down ballot have been released from running and other selections made without the huddling of attorneys to keep someone on the ballot - not just this year, but in prior years,” he said in an email. “If Kobach was to force this issue, we would point out state certification of those changes in 2012 and 2014, and note that this would be uneven enforcement of the law by a different standard.”

Reeves also said the move plays right into Democrats’ hands as they believe it underscores the argument they’ve been making against Kobach.

“If the Republicans challenge [Taylor’s exit], to be honest, it would be the greatest thing imaginable because it would make Kris Kobach look like a partisan hack,” Reeves said.

Kobach is locked in a tight race of his own with Democrat Jean Schodorf, and on Thursday, she said the decision showed Kansans his “partisan nature” and the “lack of leadership” in his office.

“Mr. Kobach does not act with the best intentions of Kansans in mind. He only considers what is best for his personal agenda.  This stands directly against what is best for the people of Kansas,” Schodorf said in a statement.

Kobach's decision could have reverberations for Democrats across the ballot, if they're asked to answer for Taylor's baggage concerning domestic violence and alleged gender discrimination. He's still in the middle of a discrimination suit brought against his office by two former female employees, and he drew heavy criticism for refusing to prosecute domestic violence cases as the Shawnee County district attorney due to, he said, budget cuts.

But Democrats risk their own chances in the race by making so much noise about Kobach’s move. Many Democrats in the state have suggested they’ll back Orman in the race — despite the fact he hasn’t declared who he’d caucus with if the Senate is split 50-50 — since he’s seen as the more competitive candidate against Roberts.

Part of his competetiveness, however, lies in his lack of party affiliation and ability to harness the dissatisfaction voters have expressed with both parties. Being seen as the Democrats’ pick could undermine that appeal.

Leroy Towns, Roberts’s campaign manager, used that line of attack in responding to Taylor’s initial exit from the race, charging it was the result of a “corrupt bargain” between Orman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“It makes clear what has been obvious from the start: Orman is the choice of liberal Democrats and he can no longer hide behind an independent smokescreen,” Towns said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Roberts, however, is not out of the woods just yet, even if Democrats aren’t successful in challenging Kobach’s decision.

Orman’s campaign said they had conducted internal polling in mid-August and found Orman gaining ground and soon surpassing Taylor for second place. They believe there’s an opening for him to win in a four-way race, especially when Roberts’ critics go on air with attacks against him.

Questions concerning where the incumbent actually lives continue to dog him, and he hasn’t helped his case since the primary ended. His campaign manager said Roberts returned “home” — to Virginia — to rest, after the primary, and he hasn’t been on air since the primary, while Orman’s been up near-consistently.

Aware of the difficulty Roberts is facing, national Republicans are already coming to his aid. Veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita has signed on as an advisor for his campaign and is headed to Kansas this weekend to begin to help out, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is working with the Roberts campaign to bolster his operation, planning to send more staff in the coming days and weeks.

This post was updated at 6:12 p.m.