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September Surprise: Kansas Shakes Up Senate Map

Image: Pat Roberts

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts gestures to the crowd as he rides on the back of a pickup in a parade Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in Gardner, Kan. Roberts is facing tea party-backed challenger Milton Wolf in the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 5.Charlie Riedel / AP

Raise your hand if you had heard of Chad Taylor or Greg Orman before yesterday. But they’re not unknown anymore: The two men have shaken up Kansas’ Senate contest -- and more importantly, they have shaken up this November’s battle for control of the entire Senate. On Wednesday, Taylor, the Democratic nominee in Kansas, officially withdrew his candidacy, winnowing the race to a contest between incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and independent businessman Greg Orman. Why is this such a big deal? Because this puts a third Republican seat (after Kentucky and Georgia) in play. And if Orman wins and caucuses with Democrats, that means that Republicans would have to win an EXTRA seat to net the six Senate pickups to win a majority. A recent automated poll (that doesn't meet NBC's methodological standards) showed Orman leading Roberts in a head-to-head matchup. Roberts, however, was slightly leading the three-way race. What’s more, the Rothenberg Political Report has now moved the race from “Republican Favored” to “Toss-Up/Tilt Republican.” For weeks, we’ve been telling you to watch what’s happening in Kansas -- with incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in the race of his life. Now the same is true for Sen. Pat Roberts.

Can a Republican house divided in Kansas stand?

The Republican Party in Kansas is bitterly divided. Roberts has his own set of problems, thanks to missteps that only reinforce the image that he’s gone too Washington. And in this political environment, it’s a big problem. Couple the two issues together -- a divided state GOP and a bitter electorate at all things Washington -- and suddenly you see a true bipartisan populist uprising of sorts that could start shaking more than just Kansas.

Which party would Orman caucus with?

What’s still fascinating here is that no one knows with which party Orman would caucus if he wins. Here is the answer he gave to MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki on Aug. 24: “What I`ve said is I`m going to caucus with whichever party is willing to actually go to Washington and start trying to solve problems as opposed to just pleasing the, extremists in their own base.” He also described his ideology. “I`m fiscally responsible and socially tolerant and have never really felt like I had a perfect home in either party. Historically I`ve tried the Republican Party, I`ve tried the Democratic Party. And I`ve just finally decided that if we`re going to change things in Washington, we`ve got to attack the two-party system and stop supporting it.” However, this statement last night from Sen. Roberts’s campaign about the turn of events might not help the GOP’s cause. “Chad Taylor’s withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race reveals a corrupt bargain between Greg Orman and national Democrats including Senator Harry Reid that disenfranchises Kansas Democrats… Orman is the choice of liberal Democrats and he can no longer hide behind an independent smokescreen.” Indeed, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt reports that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) played a key role in convincing Taylor to withdraw from the race. Still, this kind of headline helps Orman’s bipartisan appeal: “Senate candidate Greg Orman receives endorsements from former Republican lawmakers.”

Back to Obama and ISIS

Turning to foreign affairs… Yesterday, we noted that President Obama had increased the volume of his rhetoric towards ISIS. “We will not be intimidated,” Obama said yesterday. “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.” He added, “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.” And Obama wasn’t alone. Here was Vice President Joe Biden yesterday: “We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice, because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.” And here was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “You’ve got to destroy [ISIS]. Because if we don’t destroy it, it will get worse.” But despite the more amped-up and unified rhetoric from the administration, the president still had a little clean up to do. The problem for Obama is that yesterday’s “degrade and destroy” comment was later followed by Obama talking about shrinking ISIS to a “manageable problem.” We took “manageable problem” to mean Obama’s caution that a destroyed ISIS could morph into something else, which given the history of extremism in the Middle East is a fairly safe bet. But not everyone took that phrase that way. And as Obama should NOW know well, choice of words matter. And lately, his choice of words -- even on delicate matters -- has been sloppy.

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Dem senators up for re-election blasting Obama over ISIS

Despite this amped-up rhetoric, Democratic senators -- particularly those up for re-election in blue/purple states -- are blasting Obama’s handling of ISIS. Politico: “In a tough letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday evening, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said he was ‘troubled’ by statements indicating the administration lacks a comprehensive military strategy in Syria. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) channeled many Republicans’ rhetoric on ISIL in asking the administration to clearly articulate a comprehensive strategy to take on the extremist group. And Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) lit into Obama’s goal to make ISIL a ‘manageable problem.’”

Syria debate plays out at Hagan-Tillis debate

But to see why the politics of U.S. military action against ISIS -- especially inside Syria -- is tricky, just look at the answer that North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R) gave in his debate against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D). “I think that the US needs to take all actions to protect American citizens and protect freedom-loving people all over the country. I think that the president is to a certain extent now trying to solve a problem that his inaction created,” Tillis said, per NBC’s Perry Bacon. “So, I think that the president whose responsible for our foreign policy that he’s failed on in a variety of places around the United States needs to start acting and showing some leadership.” Bottom line: That wasn’t a yes. By comparison, Hagan endorsed strikes in Syria. But she still hedged a bit. “I want to see the president’s plan, and I am ready to take action.” Folks, the answer by Tillis, in particular, is one of the reasons why going to Congress to get authorization isn’t a slam dunk. Just something to keep in mind.

Tillis becomes latest GOP candidate to endorse over-the-counter birth control

MSNBC’s Michael LaRosa, who also was watching last night’s debate, notes that Tillis endorsed the idea of women accessing over-the-counter birth control as way to blunt Democratic attacks on contraception. As the Washington Post wrote earlier this week, “At least three GOP hopefuls have spoken during the summer in favor of allowing certain types of contraception to be sold without a prescription. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D), on Tuesday released a television ad in which he tells a room full of nodding women, ‘I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, around the clock, without a prescription. Cheaper and easier for you.’ The ad followed similar remarks by Ed Gillespie, a Republican running for Senate in Virginia, and Mike McFadden, who is challenging Sen. Al Franken (D) in Minnesota.” So Tillis becomes the fourth GOP Senate candidate to do this. Meanwhile, Hagan fired back at Tillis’ proposal, per MSNBC’s LaRosa. "It's 2014. Why have you worked to make birth control so inaccessible?" Hagan asked. "Speaker Tillis just doesn't understand the needs of women."

First Read’s Race of the Day: Udall vs. Gardner

Speaking of Gardner… If Arkansas is the best red-state Senate matchup, then the Colorado race between incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and challenger Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) is the best blue/purple state contest. The reason: It will tell us a lot about this battleground state heading into 2016. If Udall wins -- in this environment and against the GOP’s best candidate -- then it’s hard to see how the GOP ever gets its groove back in this state. But if Gardner wins, then the Democrats’ 10 years of dominance will come to an end. The race features a few great issues like contraception, fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline, and the state’s recent legalization of marijuana. Tomorrow, we’ll look at Colorado’s equally competitive gubernatorial race.

Poll shows McConnell ahead of Grimes

Finally, a new CNN poll finds Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leading Democratic challenger Alison Grimes by four points among likely voters, 50%-46%. This is the latest poll -- though first nonpartisan live-caller one in a while -- that shows McConnell with a slight edge.

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Countdown to Election Day: 61 days

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