You may have heard that Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman has shaken up the race in Kansas, prompting the Democratic nominee to abandon his campaign and turning a shoo-in re-election for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts into a dead heat.
You may not have heard what Orman plans to do if he gets to Washington.
One of the trickiest questions for an Independent Senate candidate is this: Which party will you caucus with? It's an important question. Without membership in a caucus, a senator will likely be denied seats on committees and give up any chance of gaining influence.
But the question poses a lose-lose scenario for an Independent. Pick a party, and you sully the brand that defines your candidacy. Refuse to choose, and you fail to explain how you can function as a senator and deliver for your state.
Orman, however, has found a way around that trap.
In a web video posted late last month, Orman laid out an audacious plan to effectively seize control of the entire chamber:
If I get elected to the United States Senate, there's a reasonable chance that neither party will have a majority. And if that happens...those senators who are centrist like myself — which right now there is one other independent who's a centrist [Maine Sen. Angus King] — would be able to come together and basically say, "We're going to caucus with whichever party...is willing to put forward a real, true problem-solving agenda."
At first blush, that may just seem like a high-brow form of evasion, especially if you're a Republican who believes — as Sen. Roberts is forcefully arguing — that Orman is a closet Democrat masquerading as an Independent.
But there's an extra wrinkle in Orman's plan that gives his answer teeth:
[I]f four or five months goes by, and it's clear that they are continuing the same old partisan bickering, the same old finger-pointing, and not solving our country's problems, then we'll be able to caucus with the other party.
Boom. That's a cannon shot across the bows of both parties.
If Republicans can't attain 51 seats, and if Democrats can't hold on to 50 (including Independent progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, plus the tie-breaker vote of Vice President Joe Biden), Orman and King would not only would have the power to dictate the entire Senate agenda; they would also have the power to humiliate whichever party they nominally put in charge, if it didn't follow through on that agenda.
It's not clear if Orman and King are on the same page. But King has made clear he's not loyal to the Democrats with whom he currently caucuses, having said he could switch in 2015 if Republicans took control. An offer from Orman to run the joint together would seem impossible to refuse. (On his website, Orman also suggests he'd reach out to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.)
Republicans may be tempted to take solace in this fact, since it means a Roberts defeat wouldn't necessarily hurt their ability to take back the Senate. But panic could quickly return. Orman's left-leaning stances on immigration, gun rights, and global warming would be extremely hard for Republicans to swallow. Team Orman could easily choose to caucus with Republicans, and force them to confront these hot-button issues. And when Republicans refuse to break with the right-wing fringe, he could condemn them as hopelessly supine to the Tea Party — just as the 2016 presidential campaign kicks off.
Democrats may have their own misgivings. Orman leans right on balanced budgets (he likes them), corporate taxation (he's for a "territorial" tax system that progressives consider a giveaway to multinational corporations), and Social Security (Politico reports he backs "reforms to Medicare and Social Security that mesh with Republican goals"). But he would not be so alone among Democrats. Bill Clinton has suggested support for a territorial tax system, and President Barack Obama once proposed compromising with Republicans on reducing Social Security benefits.
However, Orman could force Democrats to take these issues head-on. Confronting them risks turning their big tent into warring campsites — but the other option is watching Orman take a hike.
As unpleasant as that prospect may be for Democrats, theirs is a party that has proven relatively comfortable with the concept of compromise. Conversely, the Republican tendency to shut down the government as a negotiating tactic has battered their brand — in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll only 21 percent approve of how congressional Republicans have performed, trailing Democrats by 12 points and Obama by 21.
Last month I argued Republicans would be better off if they didn't win the Senate, since it means they wouldn't have to shoulder governing responsibilities in the midst of an internal civil war. Perhaps an even worse scenario for Republicans would be coming up one seat short, then being put over the top by Orman, only to have him magnify their intransigence.
Yet there will be pressure on Orman as well. He makes a tantalizing pitch to Kansas voters: "This is an opportunity for the people of Kansas to stand up and say our vote is going to matter [and] really set the agenda in Washington." But what agenda exactly? He has issue positions, but what would he prioritize? On what is he willing to compromise? And what does he do if, after one year, he proves just as unable to bridge the gap between the parties as everyone else?
He may win the power to rule the Senate, but it's anybody guess whether he would be able to lead it.