Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kansas Senate race

Greg Orman’s Supporters Don’t Understand How Congress Works

In politics, successfully labeling your opponent as an unprincipled flip-flopper is usually an effective campaign tactic and might even be enough to tip the election. But what if that happens to be his campaign’s entire raison d’être, as far as his supporters are concerned? How do you use against him the very supposed weakness that’s become his greatest strength? That’s the question Kansas Senator Pat Roberts is probably asking himself right about now.

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In politics, successfully labeling your opponent as an unprincipled flip-flopper is usually an effective campaign tactic and might even be enough to tip the election. But what if that happens to be his campaign’s entire raison d’être, as far as his supporters are concerned? How do you use against him the very supposed weakness that’s become his greatest strength? That’s the question Kansas Senator Pat Roberts is probably asking himself right about now.

The incumbent Republican is running for his fourth term in the Senate. He previously served eight terms in the House, so he’s been in Washington since 1981. He is also 78 years old. Although he retains a very conservative voting record, conservatives hit him with a grassroots primary challenge from Milton Wolf, who drew attention to Roberts’s increasing lack of connection with his home state, including the fact that he seemed to consider Virginia his real home.

Roberts won the primary, but the conservative groups appear to have shown better judgment than the party establishment on this one. Roberts has been a lackluster candidate at best, and is particularly vulnerable to anti-incumbent voter backlash. A popular campaign meme during the 2012 GOP primary debates was for one candidate to say of another: “he went to Washington and never came back.” That is almost literally true of Roberts.

And now he’s got a peculiar sort of general-election battle on his hands. While weak GOP incumbents in past cycles have been a boon for the Democrat in the race, in this case voters didn’t seem to like the Democrat either. So polls after the primaries were over showed third party/independent candidate Greg Orman, a wealthy Kansas businessman, with a lead. Democrats wisely understood their best chance to flip the seat was to help Orman and get their own candidate out of the race. (If anyone wants an indication of just how rough a summer it’s been for the Democrats, look no further than the court battle they waged to force their nominee off the ballot in Kansas.)

It was dubious legally for the Democrats, this late in the game, to withdraw their candidate from the ballot without replacing him, but the Kansas courts allowed it. Orman, for his part, is a former Republican turned Democrat turned former Democrat, now running as an independent. He has voted, according to Orman, both for and against Barack Obama for president. Voters, then, might be wondering what exactly he believes. In fact, they don’t seem to want to know. As David Drucker reports at the Washington Examiner, Orman’s supporters have caught the anti-incumbent fever:

Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman has been cagey about whether he’ll caucus with Democrats or Republicans if elected.

His supporters think that’s the whole point.

Some of the Kansas businessman’s core supporters, including registered Republicans and independents, argue that his lack of a political party would grant him outsized influence on Capitol Hill.

To be sure, some Kansas Democrats are excited about Orman’s candidacy because they think he has a good chance to beat incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and has not ruled out caucusing with Senate Democrats, especially now that the Democratic candidate Chad Taylor has dropped out.

But in multiple interviews this week at two Orman campaign volunteer organizing events, supporters referenced the candidate’s IQ and business success as the basis for their belief that he can singularly end partisan gridlock and develop politically palatable solutions to the country’s most intractable problems.

As understandable as it is for voters to be unhappy with partisan gridlock, the idea that someone trusted by neither party’s leadership would have “outsized influence on Capitol Hill” is wishful thinking. The upside here for Democrats is obvious: their candidate wasn’t going to win anyway, but now, if the Senate is otherwise split evenly, Orman gets to decide which party takes the majority since he’s got an invitation to caucus with either one.

That’s not the same as either party outright winning the seat, since Orman’s allegiance can only be secured by winning a Senate majority without him, unless the tally comes out even and he plays kingmaker. But that also raises the absurdity of his supporters’ belief that he could shake things up and forge solutions to policy stalemates just by being an outsider. In fact, it’s simply not true.

The only way Orman could grease the wheels of legislation on “the country’s most intractable problems” is if he enables the Republicans to reclaim the majority in the upper chamber. No one expects the Democrats to win back the House. Therefore, Congress will be divided unless the GOP picks up enough seats in the Senate to take the majority.

If that’s the case, there’s still going to be a certain amount of gridlock thanks to the presidential veto. But since Harry Reid shoved aside the filibuster, he’s opened the door to either party invoking what would likely become known as the “Reid Rule”: getting rid of the filibuster in individual cases because the policy or plan being held up is more important to the leadership than parliamentary procedure, rules, or tradition.

Perhaps Orman’s supporters simply think that what he brings to the table is an outsider’s perspective on government and a businessman’s perspective on regulation. He’s chosen strategic silence, however, instead of offering those ideas. That’s probably the smart move electorally, since Roberts will struggle with any line of attack gaining hold only a month before the election. But Orman’s supporters seem to have a magical faith in his ability to pass legislation by virtue of his being an “independent.” It may be a comforting illusion to them, but it’s an illusion all the same.

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Democrats Are All About Power

Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

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Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

In Kansas, Chad Taylor, the Democratic Senate candidate withdrew from the race. Taylor was trailing badly in the polls in a contest in which embattled Republican incumbent Pat Roberts faced his most significant competition from independent Greg Orman. This will clear the field for the former Republican turned Democrat turned independent to mount a serious challenge to Roberts who survived a tough primary fight in which his lack of a home in Kansas was a major issue.

In Alaska, something similar happened when Byron Mallott, the Democratic candidate for governor agreed to merge forces with independent Bill Walker in order to better compete against GOP incumbent Sean Parnell. The Democratic state central committee endorsed a new ticket on which Mallott will be their candidate for lieutenant governor under Walker, who dropped his membership in the Alaska Republican Party in order to facilitate this unusual marriage of convenience.

In both cases, regular liberal Democrats swallowed hard and bowed to their party’s best interests by endorsing a less ideological candidate. If that wasn’t enough, also in Alaska, incumbent Senator Mark Begich demonstrated his commitment to winning at all costs by running a television advertisement that falsely accused his GOP opponent, a former state attorney general, of responsibility for the freeing of a convict who subsequently murdered two senior citizens and raping their granddaughter. Protests from the outraged family of the victims forced Begich to take the ad off the air but his willingness to broadcast what Politico calls a “Willie Horton ad” in his quest for reelection amply illustrated a fight-to-the-death spirit that seems to be animating Democrats this year.

What’s going on?

What we’re observing in these races is the way Democrats have become a party solely devoted to power. Whereas Democrats were once even more fractious and as prone to ideological squabbles as Republicans, in recent years they have changed. The Obama era is one in which the party of Jefferson and Jackson has finally realized that the only way to enact their liberal big-government agenda is to win elections. In service to that cause they have embraced unprincipled opportunists like Charlie Crist in Florida, Orman in Kansas, and Walker in Alaska. Where liberals might have once preferred to fight centrist Democrats in a quest for purity, they understand the election of political chameleons fighting under their banner will do more to advance their cause than sticking with a principled liberal who will lose honorably.

This is in marked contrast to Republicans who have in recent years made a specialty of tearing each other apart in bitter and often pointless civil wars that have resulted in their losing Senate seats they might have won. Indeed, the whole point of the Tea Party is a reaction to the way the Republican Party seemed to lose its soul during the George W. Bush administration with GOP majorities in the House and the Senate spending like drunken sailors just like Democrats in a futile effort to win the loyalty of voters. Indeed, the ire of most Tea Partiers has always seemed to be mostly reserved for moderate Republicans—dubbed RINOs—whose defeat is considered a greater victory for true conservatism than unseating any Democrat. Purging the GOP of such heretics has been their goal and they have largely succeeded.

Contrary to the myth propagated by the liberal mainstream media, Republicans are, as a rule, no more extreme in their conservatism than the average Democrat officeholder is in their liberalism. But the Jacobin spirit demonstrated by the Tea Party—which initially represented a healthy revolt of the taxpayers against an establishment determined to ignore the wishes of the voters and feather their own nests—which has largely acted as if it is better to have a liberal win a congressional or Senate seat rather than a nominal non-conservative Republican, has done more than hurt the GOP’s electoral prospects in some cases. It has also given it the aura of a Robespierre-style junta determined to root out any ideological diversity or dissent. This fealty to principle at all costs can be more attractive in some ways than the cynicism of the Democrats. But it also seems to be rooted in an indifference to governance that ill befits any great party that seeks to rule rather than merely posture.

So while opportunistic turncoats like Crist as well as the shady maneuvers of Kansas and Alaska Democrats rightly disgust Republicans, they can also take a lesson from them. Winning isn’t the only thing in politics and dishonorable flip-flopping is a disgrace, but the only way to really stop liberal big government is to ensure that the advocates of those policies lose elections. The moral of the story is that it’s no good complaining about ObamaCare if your activists are actually doing more to elect Democrats than Republicans who might vote to repeal it.

Democrats have figured out that they are better off taking half a loaf than none at all. It remains to be seen if Republicans are mature enough to learn the same lesson before they throw away another chance to control Congress.

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Congressional Residency Scandals Are Bunk

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

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It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

Roberts, who has represented Kansas in the Senate since 1996, had a near political death experience in a primary against a Tea Party challenger largely because of revelations that his official Kansas residence is the home of a supporter to whom he only pays rent when he is there campaigning. His Freudian slip in which he said he only lived in the state when he had an election challenge understandably didn’t sit well with fellow Kansans. Indeed, the 78-year-old is so unpopular these days that he might actually be in danger of losing a safe Republican seat in a 3-way general election race in which an independent rather than the Democratic nominee is the bigger threat.

Facing a similar barrage of criticism is Democrat Mary Landrieu who is also one of the most endangered of a group of red state incumbent senators up for re-election. It turns out Landrieu doesn’t own a residence in Louisiana but instead sleeps in her old room in her father’s home in New Orleans when in the state. The fact that she and her husband list their Capitol Hill home as their residence in official documents doesn’t help her persuade voters that there is nothing fishy about bunking with dad.

Like Roberts’s opponents, GOP challenger Bill Cassidy is making a meal out of these revelations and arguing that this proves that the senator is not only part and parcel of the DC liberal establishment but also out of touch with Louisianans.

For Landrieu, who is already dealing with a scandal about her use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses and the overall burden of being a member of Barack Obama’s party in a very red and conservative state, this might really be the tipping point in a race that already seemed to be going against her. In a year in which the GOP may be on the verge of taking back control of the Senate, Landrieu’s failure to have her own place to crash in while in Louisiana may prove to be a very expensive mistake.

But while not having your own home in the state you represent is a perfect metaphor for the idea that politicians go native once they roost in the Capitol, let’s also understand that this is more than a bit unfair.

For most of our history, members of the House and Senate were not expected, as they are today, to race back and forth between their districts and states and Washington every week to show constituents they care. Instead, they simply moved themselves to Washington for the duration of each lengthy session. Their children (such as former Vice President Al Gore, the son of a Tennessee senator) were educated in Washington and only saw “home” in the summers. But in the age of jet travel and increased media attention, members of Congress are now generally expected to spend weekends at home and tend only to stay in the Capitol during the week.

That requires them to have two places to live. Though they make far more than the average American, it’s not enough for those who are not wealthy to maintain themselves in two homes. That leaves them with the choice of whether their main residence is going to be in their states or in Washington. Many opt for the former and bunk in Spartan style in shared apartments or even their offices during the week. Others, whether because of a desire to keep their families together or because of their spouse’s career, have their main home in the DC area and have a less substantial arrangement in their constituency. This is an especially tough decision for those who don’t hail from states that are in easy commuting distance from the capital.

There’s nothing immoral about either choice. As long as we expect these people to live in two places and pay them only enough to live decently in one, we can’t expect anything else. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of a pay increase for Congress (or at least not until they pass a balanced budget and stop spending our money like drunken sailors). But the question of residency is about symbolism not substance.

In the case of Roberts, it does look like he hasn’t actually lived in Kansas much but given that these days Congress is pretty much in continuous session (as opposed to previous eras when recesses were far longer), can his lack of a home there really be held against him in the absence of proof that he doesn’t perform adequate constituent service or speak up for the interests of his state? The same applies for Landrieu who at least can say she actually grew up in the place she stays in when in Louisiana.

We do have a right to expect our representatives and senators to retain a primary allegiance to their districts and states and resentment of those politicians who have largely abandoned their constituents and aligned themselves with lobbyists and party establishments deserve the criticism they get. Politicians should be smart enough to maintain a credible proof of residency in the places where they vote, a test that Roberts may have failed. But such scandals are strictly gotcha politics. There may be good reasons for citizens of Kansas and Louisiana to oust their senators but this isn’t one of them.

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