A 3-way contest for governor has everyone guessing whom Orman helps, hurts

photo by: Associated Press

In this file photo from Nov. 1, 2014, independent senate candidate Greg Orman talks to reporters during a campaign event in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

TOPEKA — With independent candidate Greg Orman now officially in the race for governor in Kansas, Republicans and Democrats alike are scrambling to figure out how he affects the race.

Orman, 49, an Olathe businessman, first made political news in Kansas in 2014 when he ran as an independent against Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, getting 43 percent of the vote.

His basic campaign theme is that the traditional two-party system in the United States is broken and that voters are hungry for another option. That was his message about national politics in the 2014 race, and he’s making the same pitch about Kansas politics in this year’s campaign for governor.

“We’ve certainly seen it with the school finance situation — years of litigation, lots of back-and-forth between the Supreme Court and the Legislature,” Orman said during a recent interview. “We’ve certainly seen it with (former Gov. Sam) Brownback’s tax plan, where ultimately to get that addressed and fixed, we really had to get to a point of crisis in the state. And so as I travel around in the state, I hear pretty clearly from people that they’re frustrated with what’s going on in Topeka.”

“We are the only campaign that can appeal broadly to Democrats, Republicans and independents, and I believe ultimately we’re going to win in November,” he said.

So far, the only public polling in the race suggests that’s a slim possibility.

That poll, conducted about 2 1/2 weeks before the Aug. 7 primary by the Remington Research Group in Kansas City, Mo., tested Orman’s support in a couple of hypothetical three-way races and showed him getting no more than 10-12 percent support at the time.

Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said those numbers are consistent with internal polling the party has conducted.

Since then, however, the major-party primaries have been settled, with state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, winning the Democratic nomination, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach winning on the Republican side.

In the hypothetical Orman, Kelly and Kobach matchup, the Remington poll showed Kelly and Kobach statistically tied at about 35 or 36 percent, with Orman placing third with only 12 percent. That, however, still left 17 percent of those surveyed undecided.

No matter how many votes Orman gets, the question now on everyone’s mind is whether they will come primarily from Democrats or Republicans.

The conventional wisdom is that Orman poses a bigger threat to Kelly than to Kobach, and that he could prove to be a spoiler who hands the race to Kobach.

That’s due in large part to the fact that he was supported by Democrats in 2014, and the votes he received that year came largely from Democratic-leaning areas of the state.

Orman won only three of the state’s 105 counties: Wyandotte, Douglas and Shawnee. Those also happened to be counties that Democrat Paul Davis carried in his race for governor that year against Brownback.

Furthermore, detailed election results show that in at least one of those counties, Wyandotte County, both Orman and Davis generally won and lost in the very same precincts, with only a few exceptions. That could indicate that they were both drawing from largely the same base group of voters.

Orman, however, said he sees the 2018 race for governor as an entirely different kind of election.

“That race became about the battle for control of the United States Senate,” he said. “Republicans engaged in what the Washington Post referred to as an unprecedented rescue effort. And so I don’t think we’re going to face nearly those same headwinds. I think we’re going to build on what we did in 2014, and ultimately I believe we’re going to win.”

Since winning this year’s GOP primary, Kobach has been trying hard to paint Orman as a “liberal” and the political equivalent of a Democrat.

That’s what he said on Wednesday, Aug. 15, during a Statehouse news conference the day after incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer finally conceded their race.

“We have 83 days in this race, and I understand that my two liberal-progressive opponents have already started and have been running for eight days,” Kobach said. “But they need to understand that now, we are running at full throttle.”

There is reason to believe, however, that the razor-thin margin in the primary between Kobach and Colyer, both conservatives, left the Kansas Republican Party somewhat splintered.

Furthermore, it is not yet clear where the roughly 9 percent of GOP primary voters who supported moderate candidate Jim Barnett will go in November.

Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who endorsed Kelly in that party’s primary, said she believes Republicans may have a hard time unifying for the general election.

“I don’t think you saw a very united Republican Party through the primary,” she said in an interview. “You saw Brownback’s right-hand lieutenant be beaten by somebody who wants to double-down on Brownback’s policies and move even further.”

But Sebelius also said it’s not clear to her where Orman’s political base will be in Kansas this year.

“I don’t think Democrats see him as a viable alternative, and I know since he’s run against Pat Roberts, Republicans certainly may not see him as a viable alternative,” she said. “So I don’t know what he’s doing.”

Jim Joice, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he believes Orman could be a serious threat to Democrats.

“Mr. Orman is a formidable challenger and his candidacy is nothing to be taken lightly,” he said in an email. “Republicans remember Greg Orman’s liberal policies from 2014. The Democrats will have to explain why he isn’t their candidate this go-round.”

But Corson, Joice’s Democratic Party counterpart, said he sees Orman pulling more from Republicans.

“I think there are some Republicans who just will never vote for a Democrat. Those voters are just unreachable for us, no matter what,” he said in an interview. “But they won’t vote for Kris Kobach, and (Orman) gives them a place to go. So interestingly enough, I actually think in this cycle, he’s going to end up taking more votes from Kobach than he is going to be from Sen. Kelly.”

One thing for certain is that Orman has already proven himself to be someone who can not only raise money, but also put a considerable amount of his own wealth into his campaign.

In 2014, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Orman — who has a background in the electric utility industry and as an investment manager — raised $5.7 million, including nearly $2.5 million from himself. And so far in this year’s race for governor, he has put $650,000 of his own money into his campaign.


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