September 11, 2014 6:05 AM EDT

Faced with a tough election year, Democrats are looking for hope under every rock and sofa cushion, but could it possibly be true that they’ve found some in … Kansas?

The last time Kansas voters sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, Babe Ruth was playing for the Yankees. But as the candidates enter the homestretch, three-term Republican incumbent Pat Roberts is looking vulnerable–a turn of events that is boosting Democratic prospects of holding on to the Senate majority from slim to maybe.

How have the Dems managed to summon a competitive race? By choosing the path of humiliating surrender. Party nominee Chad Taylor, a Topeka prosecutor, announced on Sept. 3 that he was quitting the contest, giving independent candidate Greg Orman a chance to consolidate the anti-Roberts vote.

A tight campaign after Labor Day is one of those things–like surfing and altitude sickness–that Kansans figure they’ll have to leave home to experience. The novelty drew an SRO crowd on Sept. 6 at the state fair in Hutchinson, where Roberts and Orman faced off for their first debate.

“It is a fact that you have given to Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” Roberts bellowed, calling the Olathe businessman a liberal from the blue-tinged precincts of northeastern Kansas. “Why should anyone believe that you’re independent?”

Orman’s website devotes 17 paragraphs to that question, citing influences from Hubert Humphrey to Ronald Reagan to H. Ross Perot. “I’m running as an independent,” he replied to Roberts, “to reject the false choices that the two-party system has presented us with.”

A statewide poll showed Roberts trailing Orman in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. As the hypothetical edged toward reality, the national GOP sent in a gunslinging consultant known for going negative in tight races. Arguably more important, Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach has refused to strike Taylor’s name from the ballot. While that may drain enough votes from Orman to keep Roberts in office–the race is a dead heat in the latest survey–the blowback could hurt Kobach in his own tight re-election race.

Then there’s Governor Sam Brownback, left vulnerable by economic stasis to a challenge by Democratic state representative Paul Davis. If this keeps up, Republicans just might wake up on Nov. 5 thinking they’re not in Kansas anymore.

This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.

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