By David Von Drehle
October 16, 2014

It is probably impolite to say that the U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas pits a geezer against a ghost. But that’s the quickest way to the heart of a race that matters more with each passing day.

With the nation in a sour mood and a bunch of vulnerable Democrats up for re-election, Republicans are increasingly confident that they can win control of the Senate. That is, if Kansas doesn’t get in the way.

That’s where Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican seeking a fourth term, finds himself haunted by a much younger foe. Roberts, 78, debates Greg Orman, who is a perky 45, with the exasperated annoyance of a man shooing the neighbor’s dog out of his delphinium bed. Orman is running as a can-do independent, invoking a pox on both parties. Roberts isn’t buying it. “He’s a liberal Democrat!” he declares again and again, a little gruffer and grouchier each time.

Orman, meanwhile, is like a poltergeist on the Syfy channel. He’s believable when seen on TV, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove that he’s for real. While the local airwaves are full of advertisements promoting the millionaire businessman, he campaigns with the stealth of a Navy SEAL behind enemy lines. He doesn’t post a schedule on his website. His public appearances–like a recent stop at Maypo’s Deli in the central Kansas town of Ellsworth–are often announced after the fact, on Twitter. National reporters have been flocking to the state to see the potential spoiler, but his press office steers them away.

“We can make sure you get a chance to talk to Greg come November,” chirped press aide Mike Phillips in a typical email.

Until then, his message is simple: Greg Orman is none of the above. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat–though he has been both. He doesn’t support Senate majority leader Harry Reid, but he doesn’t favor minority leader Mitch McConnell. He’s pro-choice (except for certain restrictions) and pro-gun (within limits). He will protect Social Security (by making some unspecified changes to the program), and as a businessman he knows that government regulations are bad (except when they are good). When Roberts touts Orman’s support of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, Orman counters by saying he voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

This is getting on Roberts’ nerves. “My opponent is very amorphous about where he stands on the issues,” the Senator grumbled during a debate on Oct. 8 in suburban Kansas City. Defining him “is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

Both candidates carry baggage. Orman does business with Raja Gupta, a Wall Street banker convicted of insider trading. Roberts has scrambled to explain why he doesn’t own a home in Kansas, instead maintaining residency with a rented room. And his tack to the right for the primary won him an endorsement from Tea Party Express but left him vulnerable to a more moderate challenger in the general election.

Because the GOP has not lost a Senate election in Kansas since 1932, pollsters have little practice at predicting voter turnout in a tight race. Recent surveys have generated a scattershot range of results, from a 10-point lead for Orman to a 5-point lead for Roberts. There is no Democrat in the race: the party’s nominee agreed to drop out at the last minute after elders concluded that Orman had a better shot. The independent hopes to materialize in Washington later this fall with control of the new Senate hanging on his vote. If that happens, Orman says, he will parley with both sides and “support the party that will embrace a pro-problem-solving agenda.” He will fill in the details later.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

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