Opinion: Independent Orman has an opening

Kansas entrepreneur Greg Orman formally launched his independent bid for governor recently and in doing so is challenging the two-party structure that has dominated U.S. politics for well over a century.

Orman believes that voters are ready to break from the political status quo. They see effective governance threatened by mounting ideological polarization and the tightening grip that special interests hold on the two major parties.

Political scientists have documented through extensive research that party identification — the extent to which an individual voter identifies with one party or another — drives political behavior. Party identification develops through lifelong experience, rarely shifts over time and mediates how a voter views candidates and issues.

Based on this research most political observers believe Orman’s candidacy will hand the gubernatorial election to the Republican nominee for governor, given that Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly two to one in Kansas.

To succeed as an independent candidate Orman will have to break the hold that party identification has on voting. He will have to convince both centrist Republicans and pragmatic Democrats to abandon their parties in voting for governor. He will also have to energize those not easily energized — registered voters unaffiliated with any political party — who number over 540,000 in Kansas, 30 percent of the total electorate.

Two-party dominance has been contested in the past, and four Kansas governors have been elected with less than 40 percent of the total vote — a mark Orman sees as achievable and one that would win a competitive three-way race. In those four elections, however, the victors were affiliated with one of the two major political parties.

Voters diverge from party alignment in voting based primarily on two factors: when they feel strongly about a candidate and when they feel strongly about issues.

Orman has a head start in being known, as a result of his vigorous run for the U.S. Senate seat in 2014. According to surveys last year over half of all voters indicated they had heard of Orman. That number exceeded voter awareness of all other gubernatorial candidates, except for Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Voters may know of Orman but are less certain as to who he is exactly and how they feel about him. In announcing his campaign Orman introduced himself as a family man, a political independent and a problem-solving businessman guided by facts rather than by party ideology. How well he communicates those qualities and whether voters respond to them will be tested in the campaign.

Orman opened his campaign with a centrist message through unscripted, free-wheeling interviews with state and national media outlets and showed himself adept and articulate in addressing a broad range of issues — particularly for a businessman who has never held political office. He promised definitive policy statements as the campaign progressed.

Orman also quickly demonstrated his seriousness by raising the money required to launch an aggressive statewide campaign. Within a month he assembled from individual donors a campaign chest of $450,000, an amount that exceeds the fundraising of any other candidate, except for Colyer. Orman emphasized that no contribution was taken nor would be accepted from political action committees or lobbyists.

History is not on Orman’s side, but our current political turmoil gives him an opening to bend the arc of history. Kansas voters have not seen a competitive three-way race for governor since the 1930s but should prepare for one this coming November.

— H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and formerly served with Kansas Govs. Robert Bennett and Mike Hayden.