Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters

Will Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts be the victim of a smash and grab?

Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters

The Senate races in South Dakota and Kansas may be examples of a rising political phenomenon: the smash-and-grab campaign. In both states, independent candidates have scrambled long-settled patterns. Races that were once considered safe wins for Republicans are attracting new money and attention from both parties. They will be hard-fought until Election Day.

Usually you need three for a trend, and there are idiosyncrasies to both of these races that resist drawing grand conclusions, but with two weeks to go before the election, it is a time to start practicing grand-conclusion-drawing.

Republican incumbents already know that they must be ready to get a Tea Party primary challenge, whether one appears imminent or not. Do rock-bottom public approval of Congress, a crack in the usual protections provided by incumbency, plus ready money available to rush into a race mean that incumbents—or near-incumbent party favorites—in heavily partisan states must also save up for late-breaking challenges?

To create the conditions for a smash-and-grab campaign, the first requirement is a late start. In South Dakota, if the race had tightened six months ago as it has in the last few weeks, it would have given the Republicans time to rally. The minute Democrats started spending to tear down Republican Senate candidate Mike Rounds, his allies would have come to his aide. That would have initiated a protracted fight in a state where Democrats would have had to spend money introducing their candidate to an electorate that didn’t know him—voters who chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 18 points. Television time is inexpensive in South Dakota, but any state can turn expensive if the battle starts early. In 2012, outside groups spent $17 million in North Dakota, more than in Texas and Missouri. The individual campaigns spent millions more.

Even now, Democratic groups are circling around South Dakota pondering whether they should invest, because every dollar they spend might lure in more Republican money that would obliterate the narrow and fragile path to defeating the Republican. That’s what has happened in Kansas, where a flood of outside groups has come to the rescue of three-term Sen. Pat Roberts. 

In a smash-and-grab campaign, one party must dominate the state—otherwise it’s a battleground fight where everyone starts early—but the representative of the dominant party must be weak. That’s certainly the case in these two states. n Kansas, Roberts has an approval rating almost as low as President Obama’s, according to a PPP poll.  In South Dakota, even Republican strategists admit that two-term Gov. Mike Rounds has run a lackluster campaign. 

These two states have particularly weak candidates, but there is a broader sentiment about Republicans and Democrats that suggests voters are liable to opt for independent candidates. In a recent CBS poll, Congress’s approval rating was just 12 percent. In a recent NBC poll, only 30 percent say their member of Congress deserves to be re-elected. In that same poll, 57 percent of voters say they are more likely to support a rookie candidate. In a Gallup poll, for the first time, more Americans say their member is focused on the needs of special interests than on the needs of his or her constituents. These numbers suggest the electorate is in a mood to fall in love with someone who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. That might be independent Senate candidates Greg Orman in Kansas or Larry Pressler in South Dakota. (Pressler may be unlikely to win, but he has split the vote, possibly opening a pathway for the Democratic candidate.) 

A candidate doesn’t need to win to create late-breaking disruption, just as Tea Party candidates have changed election outcomes even when they’ve lost. (Libertarian candidates are complicating races in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.) What helps the disruptive candidates survive and threatens the representative of the majority-party candidate is the access to ready money. If you’re going to zoom in at the last minute, you need cash to blanket the airwaves and build an organization to harness the new enthusiasm. Both parties are obsessed with raising money, and the Democrats have done well enough raising it that they had money to spend on a long-shot race in South Dakota. But the presence of outside money at the ready can also help these raids. After the race became competitive, money flooded into the Kansas race, mostly to rescue Roberts, but Orman has also benefited from outside money, including what he raised last week at a New York event hosted by George Soros’ son. 

The power of outside money in these races also colors what might seem like simply idiosyncratic developments. In Kansas, Democrats convinced their candidate to drop out of the race. That’s hard to duplicate in future cycles in other states. On the other hand, the necessity of outside money from the national party and the network of donors makes all candidates vulnerable to pressure from those powerful sources. They can either withhold support, crippling a campaign, or withhold future support, damaging a young politician’s future chances. The quick string-pulling that occurred in Kansas—and that’s required to mobilize a last-minute insurgent campaign—is helped by the increased influence of big money. 

One of the ironclad rules of American politics is that incumbents have an enormous advantage. The majority of Senate races are not being discussed because they are locked up by people who already have a nameplate on one of the 100 chairs in the Senate chamber. It’s also true that states are moving away from split-ticket voting, picking a senator from the party the state’s voters preferred in the presidential election. Those are impediments to any smash-and-grab campaign, and it’s possible that—despite little flare-ups—Kansas and South Dakota voters will revert to form and elect Republicans. But there is also another durable truth in politics: Congress has been overtaken by partisan freezer-lock. That creates frustration in the electorate that seeks an outlet to register its disgust. Perhaps it’s impossible to pull off a heist, but for voters looking to disturb the current system, the prospect of instilling fear in incumbents may be enough to encourage more smash-and-grab campaigns in the future.