A Kansas state court has ruled that Democrats do not have to field a candidate this fall against Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, in a decision that could boost independent Greg Orman in his bid to unseat the longtime GOP senator.
A panel of three Shawnee County District Court judges ruled in a suit filed after Democratic candidate Chad Taylor dropped out of the race.
Republicans wanted to keep a Democrat on the ballot, which presumably would split the anti-Roberts vote. But without a Democrat running, polls so far show Orman slightly ahead of Roberts in a head-to-head race.
Orman, despite prodding by reporters, has not said which way he would caucus if elected to the Senate. But Roberts claims he’s clearly a “liberal Democrat.”
The Kansas Supreme Court initially allowed Taylor, the 40-year-old Topeka-area district attorney, to remove his name from the Nov. 4 ballot last month -- but voter David Orel, 57, of Kansas City, Kan., immediately sued the Democratic Party and three of its top officials.
The judges on Wednesday said the voter who sued failed "to provide evidence to sustain it" by refusing to participate in the only hearing in the case Monday.
The voter did not plan to appeal, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican and strong Roberts supporter, directed counties to begin printing ballots in time for the start of advance voting on Oct. 15.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon declared during a news conference, "It's done."
Kobach had told the judges that counties would need to start printing ballots Thursday to be ready for advance voting.
The GOP needs a net gain of six seats to recapture a Senate majority and has always counted on Roberts winning re-election in a state that has elected only Republicans to the chamber since 1932. But Roberts looked vulnerable after a difficult primary against a tea party challenger and still faces questions about his residency after a long career in Washington.
Asked about the ruling, Orman's campaign pointed to an earlier statement that no matter who's on the ballot, he's running against "the broken system in Washington." He has said he will caucus with whichever party has a clear majority and play kingmaker if neither does.
But Roberts' campaign is painting Orman as a Democrat hiding his true leanings.
State GOP Executive Director Clay Barker said a "corrupt bargain" with Democrats "was pulled off." Wagnon acknowledged some Democrats wanted Taylor out but said neither she nor members of the state party's executive committee were involved.
Orel is a longtime registered Democrat but his 22-year-old son, Alex, works on the re-election campaign of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, a Roberts supporter.
Haney has said Orel simply wants to vote for a Democrat in the Nov. 4 election. Orel refused to show up Monday for the only hearing in the case because, Haney said, he faced intense news media scrutiny.
The case involved a law saying that if a candidate vacancy occurs after the primary, it "shall be filled by the party committee" of the district or the state, depending on the office. The judges concluded that the language merely spells out who fills a vacancy if a party wishes to do it, rather than mandates that all vacancies be filled.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.