TOPEKA — The big step for Greg Orman’s independent campaign for Kansas governor on Wednesday provoked scorching denunciations and rich accolades from political candidates, pundits and voters who must orient themselves to an insurgent campaign by a wealthy businessman without party allegiances.
Orman, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, filed paperwork with the state to appoint a treasurer and start gathering campaign contributions in a gubernatorial contest with 20 candidates hungry to replace Gov. Sam Brownback. The Topeka Capital-Journal first reported Orman’s decision to plunge ahead in the race.
“Being an independent liberates me to serve Kansas in ways no other leader can,” Orman said. “I can recruit the best and brightest to serve the state of Kansas, regardless of their political affiliation, to move our state forward. I will be able to embrace the best ideas, regardless of where they come from, to serve the citizens of our state. Importantly, I won’t answer to party bosses or special interests.”
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, viewed as a front-runner among a dozen Republican candidates for governor, said Kansans ought not be fooled by an absence of overt partisan labels on Orman.
“I think Mr. Orman is a Democrat in an independent’s clothing,” Kobach said. “Because he’s done this once, the ruse doesn’t work.”
Jean Schodorf, who served three terms as a Republican in the Kansas Senate before running for secretary of state as a Democrat in 2014, said the Democratic Party should focus its talents in 2018 on capturing two of the four U.S. House seats in Kansas. Orman offers voters a compelling alternative choice in the governor’s race, she said.
She said Orman “would be a very strong candidate to take on Kris Kobach” and possesses the potential to be a “transformative governor.”
Democratic candidate for governor Josh Svaty expressed frustration Orman launched an exploratory committee, just as other candidates have done, rather than complete the filing process by submitting signatures of 5,000 registered voters to get on the November general election ballot as an independent.
“Exploratory committee? What’s left to explore? Either get in the race or get out,” Svaty said.
Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, said dynamics of the 2018 governor’s race instantly were altered by Orman. He’s a guy with name recognition built during his U.S. Senate campaign three years ago against Republican Pat Roberts. There’s no question Orman has access to deep pockets to finance a statewide campaign. He’s not been in public office to develop a track record that could offend voters, Beatty said.
Beatty said the prevailing theory was Orman would draw more votes from the Democratic Party’s nominee, but to be successful next year in Kansas, an independent must draw from across the political rainbow.
“This blows up the entire governor’s race,” Beatty said. “It’s the equivalent of tearing up a piece of paper and throwing it up in the air. Where are voters going to land?”
Ed Flentje, who worked for Republican Govs. Mike Hayden and Robert Bennett, said Kansas never had warmed to independent candidates for governor. It’s not clear Kansas voters — even in this turbulent “drain-the-swamp” era of national politics — are eager to elect someone shunning the main political parties, he said.
“Is it possible? Of course. Is it probable? History would not suggest it’s probable, but the political climate is different than its been. What’s missing from Orman is clarity about how voters feel about him,” Flentje said.
In 2014, polling indicated Orman was on the cusp of defeating Roberts. Late infusion of millions of dollars in support of the senator helped secure Roberts’ re-election. Orman landed 43 percent of the vote in a race with no Democratic nominee, because Topeka Democrat Chad Taylor succumbed to pressure to step aside for Orman’s benefit.
“The Republican Party welcomes Greg Orman to this race,” said Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas GOP and a candidate for secretary of state. “You’re going to basically have two candidates versus our Republican nominee.”
Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said there was no appetite among Republican and Democratic voters for a rerun of the Orman show. He said the nation elected President Donald Trump, who he described as a “rich egomaniac,” and the state of Kansas shouldn’t replicate that outcome.
“Greg is someone who has already been rejected by voters,” Corson said. “Greg has no chance in a three-person race for governor.”
Ed O’Malley, a Republican candidate for governor from Wichita, said the threat posed by a Kobach governorship would be resolved in the primary.
“I agree that Kris Kobach is extreme and thousands of others think he’s extreme, which is why I intend to beat him in the Republican primary,” O’Malley said.
State Sen. Dinah Sykes said she would back O’Malley in the Aug. 7 primary. In terms of the general election, the Lenexa Republican said, the addition of Orman was exciting because many “people are frustrated by the two parties.”
The Republican field includes Kobach, O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, businessmen Wink Hartman and Patrick Kucera, former state Rep. Mark Hutton, four high school students and former Sen. Jim Barnett.
Barnett, who was the GOP’s nominee for governor in 2006, said the emergence of Orman was “very significant” and would make it more likely a Republican prevailed next November. He said Kansas voters would “win no matter what” if the ballot included quality Democratic, Republican and independent candidates.
Democrats seeking the gubernatorial nomination include Svaty, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and House Minority Leader Jim Ward.
“I welcome him,” Ward said. “Kansans deserve a vigorous debate on what they want for their future. Greg Orman’s just another person I’m going to beat.”