Politics & Government

Poll: Orman leads by a hair in Senate race; Davis holds 7-point lead over Brownback

Greg Orman, left, and Pat Roberts are candidates for the U.S. Senate. (June 5, 2014)
Greg Orman, left, and Pat Roberts are candidates for the U.S. Senate. (June 5, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

A new KSN News poll shows Olathe businessman Greg Orman with a razor-thin lead over Sen. Pat Roberts in a race that could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

The poll, conducted by the national firm SurveyUSA, showed independent candidate Orman leading Republican Roberts by 37 to 36 percent. Democrat Chad Taylor, who is trying to get his name off the ballot, drew 10 percent; Libertarian Randall Batson had 6 percent, and 11 percent said they were undecided.

The margin of error is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points meaning the race is a statistical dead heat.

The poll also showed that House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, continues to lead Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The tally was Davis 47 percent, Brownback 40 percent, virtually identical to the numbers in the KSN/SurveyUSA poll released Aug. 25.

And the poll showed Jean Schodorf, a former moderate Republican state senator who switched parties, pulling ahead for the first time in her race against conservative Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The poll showed Schodorf leading 46 to 43 percent, a three-point swing from the August poll that had them tied at 46 percent each.

The Senate poll, conducted between Thursday and Sunday, is the first public survey released since a chaotic shakeup of the race last week.

Taylor filed papers Wednesday to try to exit the Senate race and give Orman, a better-funded candidate, a clear shot at Roberts. For now, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has ruled that Taylor’s name will stay on the ballot, although Taylor has said he plans to challenge that decision. On Monday, Taylor could not be reached for comment.

The race has national significance because it could give Orman the swing vote on whether Republicans or Democrats will control the Senate for the rest of President Obama’s term in office.

Orman, who has been registered as Republican, Democrat and independent, has not committed to caucusing with either party. He has said he’ll caucus with whichever party wins the majority; if there’s a tie, he’ll work with whichever party is most committed to a “problem-solving, nonpartisan agenda.”

Electoral-vote.com, a national aggregator of polling data, projects the Senate will be 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, assuming a Roberts victory in the Nov. 4 Kansas general election.

In that scenario, an Orman win would give him the swing vote to decide which party would control the Senate through 2016.

If Orman opted to caucus with Republicans, they’d have control of the chamber by one vote.

If he went with the Democrats, it would create a 50-50 split. That would mean Democrats would continue to control the Senate, because Vice President Joe Biden, also technically the president of the Senate, would get the tie-breaking vote.

The KSN poll found that 71 percent of voters surveyed knew that Taylor was seeking to withdraw from the ballot. Fifty-eight percent knew Kobach has refused to let him go.

Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University, said he had expected a stronger movement to Orman following the Taylor announcement.

Orman picked up 17 points from the August KSN/SurveyUSA poll, while Roberts’ number was basically steady.

However, a poll by the firm Public Policy Polling in August had given Orman a 43 to 33 percent advantage in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Roberts.

Rackaway said a significant number of Taylor voters had apparently opted to join the undecided voters, a category that more than doubled from August to September in the KSN/SurveyUSA poll.

That leaves Orman and Roberts in a statistical dead heat. “There’s still opportunity for anyone there,” he said.

In addition to the Taylor controversy, the race also made news last week when Roberts sidelined his campaign manager and longtime political confidant Leroy Towns, turning the reins over to Corry Bliss and Chris LaCivita, national consultants with a reputation for negative campaigning.

Since last week, Roberts has developed a campaign mantra that a vote for Orman would be a vote to keep Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as the majority leader in the Senate.

The message parallels that of a national Republican Senate campaign to take control and dump Reid, who has been a vocal critic of the free-spending conservative political activism of Kansas-based Koch Industries and brothers Charles and David Koch, who run it.

Roberts referenced Reid on almost every question in Saturday’s State Fair debate and issued a news release on Monday that referenced Reid five times in six paragraphs.

Rackaway said he doesn’t think trying to associate Orman with Reid will be an effective strategy because Reid isn’t much of an issue for most Kansans.

He said Brownback’s efforts to link Davis to President Obama haven’t moved voters to Brownback’s direction, even though Obama is much better known in Kansas.

“I don’t see why someone who is less salient to Kansas voters than Obama is going to have much effect,” he said.

He predicted that the Roberts campaign will shift to attacking Orman.

He noted that on Monday, the Associated Press carried a story that Orman has been sued in a business dispute by boxing equipment manufacturer Everlast Corp. The lawsuit was filed in 2012 and is scheduled for trial in October.

The biggest loser in the Taylor tiff appears to be Kobach, Rackaway said.

He noted that Schodorf started way behind the controversial secretary of state, who is known nationwide for his advocacy for stricter voter identification laws and his strong opposition to undocumented immigration.

“We’ve seen consistent, growing momentum behind Schodorf,” Rackaway said. “It’s been slow, but it’s been steady.”

The decision to keep Taylor on the ballot despite his and his party’s wishes might have given Schodorf that extra push past Kobach, Rackaway said.

“He’s the state’s top election official,” Rackaway said. “If he appears to be playing politics, that really strongly works against him.”

Schodorf said she was “tickled” to see she had passed Kobach in the latest poll, but that she’s not taking anything for granted.

“The momentum is building, but we’re working every day as hard as we can,” Schodorf said.

She said Kobach should have recused himself on the question of whether Taylor should be taken off the ballot, because Kobach is a member of Roberts’ honorary campaign committee, a group of state officials backing Roberts’ re-election bid.

Kobach could not be reached for comment.

After the last KSN/SurveyUSA poll, Brownback’s campaign attacked the firm’s methodology, saying it had underweighted Republicans and overweighted Democrats in its automated telephone sample. The poll questioned 555 likely voters.

“You can’t make that argument this time around,” Rackaway said.

The survey pool shifted from 46 percent Republican and 32 percent Democratic in the August survey to 50 percent Republican and 30 percent Democratic in the new poll. But Brownback’s share didn’t move.

Rackaway said there have been enough polls showing a clear enough trend that “we know Davis is in the lead now. To attempt to spin that is kind of futile.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.