How can a politician as flawed as Kris Kobach be elected governor? Easy — just divide and conquer.
A lot of politicians with deep pockets and deep ambition see 2018 as their moment to shine. Consequently, Kobach enjoys the major advantage of having “too many” opponents, letting him squeak through to the governorship with relatively few voters.
This was evident in the Republican primary results. On election night, Kobach had a 191 vote lead over Gov. Jeff Colyer, with Jim Barnett and Ken Selzer playing major spoiler roles. Provisional ballots are yet uncounted, but let’s assume Kobach wins the nomination. Logic dictates that to stop Kobach with his deep core of conservative support, circle the wagons to give one candidate a clear run at him. But since when is Kansas politics logical?
Kobach is counting on a repeat in November. Kobach’s biggest advantage is Independent Greg Orman. Kansas City Star editorialists have scolded Orman for dodging specifics about many major issues. For example, when the Shawnee Mission Post offered candidates space for 500 word essays on school funding, Orman ignored them, but then his campaign attacked local media for engaging in “multiple choice journalism demanding yes or no answers.” Seriously? On issues like school funding and taxes, Star editorialists call Orman’s message “vague promises and platitudes.”
Orman’s message is mostly jabs at the two-party system, though to his credit he has stated support for several relatively uncontroversial ideas on government transparency. But Orman made a silly gaffe when he criticized state-supported party primaries based on the factually incorrect belief that parties are private organizations. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parties are not private and that state supported primaries are appropriate. For someone who talks big about parties, Orman gets a lot about them wrong.
When reporters pin Orman down on issues, his positions do not match his advertising. He fancies himself a centrist, but based on his past statements, on issues like Medicaid, abortion, guns, LGBT rights, and environmental regulations, Orman is liberal. And his supporters spent much of this campaign trying to out-liberal Democratic nominee Laura Kelly, attacking her from the left on guns and voter regulations. So who is the real centrist—Orman or Kelly, a candidate his camp evidently thinks is too conservative?
As the campaign evolves, it is fair to ask how Orman and Kelly actually differ on issues. In 2009, Orman gave Kelly $1,000 for her exploratory campaign against Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, which Kelly later dropped. Clearly, Orman saw common ground with Kelly then. Not anymore?
Orman repackages liberalism in moderate wrapping paper. The recipient of this gift is Kobach, currently on track to become governor without winning a majority. The first general election poll shows Kelly 36 percent, Kobach 35 percent, and Orman 12 percent. Of course, Orman was polling ahead of Sen. Pat Roberts on election day 2014, but then lost by 11 percent. So who knows what his real vote will be. But most of Orman’s support likely comes from voters who would prefer Kelly in a two-person race. That makes Orman a spoiler, and the kind of second-tier candidate who handed Kobach his election lead on primary night.
If Orman has something distinct to offer, then he should bring it clearly and authentically. Otherwise, he is running a campaign based on generics that do not seem to represent his policies.
That kind of campaign is probably not launching a political revolution, but it can elect a no-mandate Governor Kobach and flip Kansas to something even more extreme than Brownback-era politics. Is that worth it for Kansans? Kobach is depending on it.
Patrick. R. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.