Welcome to the Kansas Senate Race, Where Issues Don't Matter

Business and labor groups are jumping in because the Senate is at stake. The candidates themselves are almost irrelevant.

On Wednesday, the Kansas state AFL-CIO endorsed the independent Senate bid of Greg Orman, the wealthy founder of a private equity firm who praises Rep. Paul Ryan and opposes the issue that might be nearest and dearest to the labor movement's heart, card-check legislation.

It's not the only strange coupling in the Kansas race. The same day as the AFL-CIO endorsement, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began airing TV ads attacking Orman and supporting his opponent, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.

But the three-term incumbent hasn't been a friend to the chamber recently: He opposed the new Common Core education standards and comprehensive immigration reform, and voted against legislation that would have reopened the government after last year's shutdown. In each case, he was on the wrong side of the of the country's largest business lobby.

Normally, groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have a checklist of issues on which they judge candidates, and hand out endorsements accordingly. But this is not a normal race.

The contest between Roberts and Orman (there is no Democrat on the ballot) has become one of the year's fiercest battles. Amid a tumultuous fight in at least a half-dozen other states, its victor might determine which party controls the Senate in 2015.

And right now, the majority looks like what two ostensibly nonpartisan organizations like the AFL-CIO or the chamber care most about—even at the expense of backing candidates who disagree with them on individual issues.

In a speech last week in Topeka, Kan., Chamber of Commerce National Political Director Rob Engstrom made clear that its endorsement of Roberts was rooted in the senator's ability to grant the GOP a majority. (Orman has said he'll caucus with whichever party holds a majority, but it's not clear what he'd do should he have the deciding vote.)

"The biggest question of all is which party Orman would caucus with if elected," said Engstrom, according to remarks provided by a chamber spokeswoman. "His decision could be the single factor that determines whether we have a pro-jobs majority in the U.S. Senate."

It's a sign of the times for each group, both of which used to support candidates of both parties with regularity. Neither the chamber, natural allies of the GOP, nor the AFL-CIO, at home with Democrats, has endorsed a major Senate candidate from the other party this year—though the chamber has withheld support for either party's candidates in two key races, Louisiana and Georgia (both parties have endorsed House candidates from the other party).

The absence of crossover endorsements is especially conspicuous in Kansas. Orman's background would appear to make him suitable for the chamber's support: Not only does he have an extensive business background, he supports immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship and he called the government shutdown the "height of insanity." And while he said repealing Obamacare isn't realistic, he also says he wouldn't have voted for the legislation in the first place. On a host of other issues—like the minimum wage and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—he's been noncommittal about taking either side.

The Chamber of Commerce, in its TV ad, blasted Orman as just another liberal, citing his refusal to support an Obamacare repeal and his silence on the Keystone pipeline.

A spokeswoman for the group emphasized that the chamber backs candidates based on a broad range of issues, not partisanship. And Roberts does carry a 92 percent lifetime rating from the chamber, something Engstrom noted in his visit to the state last week. Although that percentage has dipped in recent years, that was likely the product of facing a stiff primary challenge from conservative candidate Milton Wolf.

Orman, meanwhile, did not seek out the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO, according to a campaign spokesman. And the union, for its part, says it was left with a decision after Democratic nominee Chad Taylor withdrew from the ballot: Should they endorse someone else? Bruce Tunnell, the group's executive director, said there was a fierce debate about whether to endorse Orman or stay out of the race.

Ultimately, he said, the group decided, "He can't be as bad as Roberts."