Greg Orman stepped into the 2018 governor's race Wednesday as an independent, banking on the idea that voters have become disenchanted with the two main political parties.
Orman, readers will recall, is the Johnson County businessman who ran a strong challenge against Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014. But that was a race in which the Democratic candidate, Chad Taylor, bowed out in what appeared to be a coordinated effort with Orman to prevent Republicans from winning a Senate majority. It didn't work, and Orman ended up losing the race by more than a 10-point margin.
And to be precise, Orman has taken only the first step toward getting into the governor's race by forming an exploratory committee and appointing a campaign treasurer so he can begin raising money.
But political experts in Kansas say if he does get in the race, it's unlikely that he can break the grip that the Democratic and Republican parties have on the vast majority of voters in the state, and his candidacy would likely give Republicans an edge that they might not have otherwise.
"If you look at when Democrats and Republicans do their absolute worst in Kansas elections, it looks like about three-fourths of Kansas voters are solidly party voters. They’re going to vote for that Democrat or Republican, seemingly because their name is on the ballot," University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said Wednesday in a phone interview.
In any given statewide race in Kansas, he said, any given Republican candidate has a lock on about 40 percent of the vote. That's how much Republican Jim Barnett received in 2006 when he ran for governor against Kathleen Sebelius. And any given Democrat can count on 30-35 percent, roughly the amount Sen. Tom Holland got when he ran for governor in 2010 against Sam Brownback.
"So his first task is to own that other 25 percent," he said, "which is difficult because most of those people lean to a party. It’s also difficult because your truest independents are also the least politically knowledgeable, they care the least about politics and they’re the least likely to vote. His most natural constituency is the most tuned out."
The next task, Miller said, is for Orman to peel away votes from both the Democratic and Republican candidates, whoever they turn out to be. But his performance in 2014 shows that he is more likely to peel away votes from Democrats than Republicans.
"It was basically a small version of Paul Davis’ run for governor," he said. "If you look at the precinct-level results and the exit polls, it didn’t appear that he had a really unique constituency that wasn’t already voting for Paul Davis."
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, agreed.
"In my mind there’s no question but that the votes he got against Pat Roberts in 2014 were mostly Democratic votes, with a smattering of independents and moderate Republicans," he said.
According to Smith, and many others, Secretary of State Kris Kobach is currently the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination, although Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer could have the power of incumbency, assuming he is elevated to the governor's office before the Aug. 7 primary.
Democrats would likely be happy with either one, because Colyer will be saddled with all the political baggage of the Brownback administration, and, according to polls, Kobach is seen as a highly divisive figure who may have a hard time winning support from independents and moderate Republicans —although, to be fair, people have said that about him going into each of the last two statewide elections that he ended up winning.
So far, three major Democrats have announced plans to run: former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer; former Rep. Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, the only one in the group who currently holds elected office.
There are, of course, a number of other candidates in the GOP race. But in any circumstance, Democrats will be trying to put together the same kind of coalition with independents and moderate Republicans that carried Sebelius into the governor's office in 2002 and 2006. And Orman's entry into the race makes that more difficult, Miller said, because he can easily be portrayed as a Democrat in disguise.
"He is the only candidate in the race who donated to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, and has a history of support from the Democratic Party," Miller said. "And Pat Roberts spent a lot of money spreading that message about him."
Democratic congressional candidate Paul Davis' campaign has confirmed that Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House, will be in Kansas this weekend — a fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to use against him.
The NRCC issued a statement earlier this week using the event as a link between Davis and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, now the minority leader and a favorite foil for Republicans.
That's important because when he announced his campaign in August, Davis specifically said that if he's elected, he would not support Pelosi for another term as leader of the Democratic caucus.
"Think voters will believe Paul won’t support Pelosi for Speaker while the establishment pulls out the stops to prop him up? Yeah, we don’t either," the NRCC statement said.
Davis, a former state lawmaker from Lawrence and the Democrats' unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2014, is running for the 2nd District seat that Rep. Lynn Jenkins, of Topeka, will vacate next year. There is a crowded field of Republicans seeking the nomination, led by state Sens. Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth, and Caryn Tyson, of Parker.
In their first quarterly campaign finance reports released in October, Davis reported raising more than $400,000 in just a little more than a month, more money than all the Republican candidates combined. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political handicapping website, rates the 2nd District as leaning Republican, one notch above the toss-up category.
Davis spokeswoman Haley Pollack confirmed in an email this week that Hoyer will be in Kansas on Saturday to stump for Davis as part of a swing through several states where he is campaigning for Democratic House candidates.
But she categorically rejected the idea that Davis is now in the camp of Pelosi, whom Republicans often portray as a quintessential San Francisco liberal.
"Congressman Hoyer is a respected moderate," Pollack said. "Paul has pledged he will not support Nancy Pelosi for Leader or Speaker. His position on this is clear, has not changed, and will not change – period."
She said the event would take place at a "private venue" on Saturday with a small group of supporters after Hoyer campaigns in Kansas City, Mo., for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver that same day.
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, of Kansas, both Republicans, are saying that GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, of Alabama, should step aside if allegations of sexual misconduct against him are true.
Both Kansas senators issued statements Friday after the Washington Post published explosive allegations that Moore, Alabama's former controversial Supreme Court chief justice, had sexual contact with at least four women when they were teenagers, including one who was 14 at the time, and he was in his 30s.
"If the allegations are true, Senator Roberts would urge Roy Moore to step aside," Sarah Little, Roberts' spokeswoman said in an email to the Journal-World.
“If there is any truth to these allegations, Roy Moore should immediately step aside,” Moran said in a separate email.
Moore is running in a special election in Alabama to fill a Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He has vehemently denied the allegations. The election is scheduled for Dec. 12.
The seat is temporarily being held by Sen. Luther Strange, whom Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed until a special election could be held. Strange lost the GOP primary to Moore in September.
The accusations could not have come at a worse time for Senate Republicans who had hoped to dominate the news cycle Thursday with the unveiling of their own tax overhaul proposal. Both Roberts and Moran had issued news releases earlier in the day touting the tax plan. Roberts serves on the Finance Committee that will begin working the bill Monday.
Republicans currently hold a 52-48 majority over Democrats and Independents in the Senate, and divisions within the caucus have already shown they can have a difficult time passing major legislation such as repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
In another controversial measure, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the deciding vote to pass a bill taking away consumer rights to join class action lawsuits against financial institutions.
If Republicans were to lose the Alabama race — something that was all but unthinkable just a few days ago — that would leave the GOP with only a 51-49 majority, and virtually no margin for error.
The allegations against Moore are just the latest in a long series of sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men in business, entertainment and government. In fact, at virtually the same time the Washington Post was releasing its story about Moore, the New York Times published a story on its website detailing sexual misconduct allegations against comedian Louis C.K.
There have also been recent allegations of widespread sexual harassment against female legislative staff and interns in the Kansas Statehouse.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Barnett said Thursday that he would be committed to a nondiscrimination policy to protect gay and lesbian state workers, a policy that current Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded in 2015.
"On the social issues, it’s been a huge black eye for our state, and I will make it very clear here today that if I am governor of Kansas, there will not be discrimination," Barnett said during a news conference Thursday.
When asked specifically about an executive order that was in place during Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration barring discrimination in executive branch agencies on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, an executive order that Brownback rescinded, Barnett said, "I would support that."
Thursday's news conference was intended to highlight Barnett's agenda for public education, which he referred to as "the driver of the Kansas economy in the 21st century." He said his agenda would be focused on investing in early-childhood education, increasing funding in order to stop the cycle of school finance litigation, and focusing on career preparation for Kansas students.
Answering questions from reporters, Barnett said that during his recent statewide tour of Kansans, he had heard from businesses all across the state that their biggest need is access to a highly trained workforce.
He was then asked about the number of young people who leave Kansas after high school or college for larger metropolitan areas elsewhere in the country that are perceived as more tolerant than Kansas, where lawmakers in recent years have proposed a series of "religious freedom" bills that critics say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Barnett, who is known as a social conservative on many issues, said he recognized that as a problem in Kansas.
Since announcing his candidacy earlier this year, Barnett said, he has tried to identify six major issues that he wants to focus on, spending one month talking about each. Earlier, he has gone on tours to focus on agricultural policy, health care, economic development and tourism.
"This month we're talking about education, and our last tour is going to be a young professionals tour," he said. "How do we change the image of this state in the fashion that you just described? And it's hugely important because a lot of us are going to retire, or are retired already, and if we don't replace ourselves we're going to be in trouble."
Barnett is vying in a crowded Republican field for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018. The perceived front-runner in the race is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is known nationally for his crusades against illegal immigration, and who earlier this week received the endorsement of the nationally syndicated talk show host Sean Hannity.
Also running for the GOP nomination are Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer; Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; former Rep. Mark Hutton, of Wichita; former Rep. Ed O'Malley, who now lives in Wichita; Wichita businessman Willis "Wink" Hartman; and a number of other lesser-known candidates, including several teenagers.
People in Kansas who have been pushing to expand KanCare under the Affordable Care Act no doubt took notice Tuesday night when Maine became the first state in the union to settle that issue by popular vote, bypassing a Republican governor who has vetoed such a measure at least five times in the last six years.
After all, a 2016 "Kansas Speaks poll" conducted by Fort Hays State University showed pretty solid majorities in favor of extending the joint state-federal health care program to an estimated 150,000 people who could become eligible if Kansas took advantage of the federal law.
Similar efforts are also underway in conservative states like Utah and Idaho to get Medicaid expansion initiatives on their state ballots.
So naturally the question arises, is there a way to get a Medicaid expansion proposal onto a state ballot in Kansas?
The short answer to that question is no.
The process used in Maine and other states falls under the general heading of "initiatives and referendums," two methods by which citizens can initiate legislation or constitutional amendments by petition, bypassing the regular legislative process.
Although those processes have been allowed in some New England towns since time immemorial, in most other places they are a byproduct of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea was to put real political power directly in the hands of the people so that whenever legislatures or governors became too intransigent or too corrupt, "the people" could take matters into their own hands.
For whatever reason, though, despite the fact that Kansas was steeped in the Populist movement throughout the 1890s, initiatives and referendums were one part of the movement that just never took hold here.
The last governor who even tried to push through a constitutional amendment allowing initiatives and referendums was Democrat Joan Finney in the early 1990s, but that went nowhere fast.
In modern times, some states that allow initiatives and referendums have learned to regret it, in part because "the people" who try to use that process to their advantage tend to be the same well-heeled special interest groups who stalk the halls of statehouses but who use the public vote process when traditional legislative efforts are unsuccessful.
The general public, it turns out, is sometimes much more pliable and persuadable than legislative committees, which have the power to hold hearings, summon witnesses and compel the production of documents when debating complex issues.
Lawrence businessman Scott Morgan has had a difficult relationship with the modern Kansas Republican Party for many years. A self-described moderate, he has never fit in well with Gov. Sam Brownback's conservative wing of the party, and in 2014 he tried unsuccessfully to unseat Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Now he is officially "breaking up" with the GOP and is launching a campaign to start a new party, the Party of the Center. In a tongue-in-cheek letter posted online this week, he spelled out the reasons why their political romance went south.
"This is hard to write but I think we shouldn’t hang out together anymore," Morgan wrote. "I’d like to say it’s not you, it’s me. But I kind of think it is you. I know that’s harsh but you’ve changed and I just feel we’re going in different directions."
The style of his letter was an obvious attempt at humor, but Morgan says his new project to launch a new, centrist party in Kansas is anything but a joke.
"What we’ve realized is that parties have fundamentally changed over the last 120 years," he said during a phone interview Tuesday. "And you see this throughout the economy, where things have been disrupted by technology, by the way we have changed regulatory schemes. Parties, the same thing. It just hasn’t reacted to it yet."
Morgan said he is working with a core group of people, mainly in Douglas and Johnson counties, who feel like the two major parties have polarized to the left and right fringes of the political spectrum, leaving behind a large group of centrists who no longer feel at home in either camp.
"We’re smart enough to know these haven’t worked in the past, but we think the past is the past, and with all the changes the time is right," he said.
Under Kansas law, in order for a new party to be recognized and have its candidates listed on the ballot, organizers must collect petition signatures equal to 2 percent of all the ballots cast in the last election for governor. That would be about 18,000 signatures, based on the turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Thereafter, it must nominate at least one candidate for a statewide office each gubernatorial election cycle, and its candidates must get at least 1 percent of the vote in order for the party to keep its recognition.
Morgan said he hasn't decided whether he will be a candidate for the new party, assuming it can achieve ballot access. But he said the party will recruit candidates for offices up and down the ballot, not just for the high-profile races. And he said that's a major difference between the organization he wants to launch and "independent" candidates like Greg Orman, the unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate in 2014 who is said to be considering a bid for governor in 2018.
"My issue with an independent candidate is, that affects one, typically high-level office, the state’s governor or Senate, and it does nothing down-ballot," Morgan said. "It does nothing for building a bench so you have a sustainable way to move forward."
Currently, there are only three recognized parties in Kansas: the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party and the Republican Party.
A recent CNN-SSRS poll found widespread public dissatisfaction with the two major parties, with 62 percent of Americans saying they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party and 51 percent saying the same about the Democratic Party.
Those numbers might suggest there is room for a new organization to gain a foothold with the public, but University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller says that's unlikely.
"Those disapproval numbers are relatively high, compared to recent years, but that is driven really by glowing hatred for the other party from your own side. The biggest driver is not that Americans across the board are coming to dislike both parties, although there has been an increase in that."
"The biggest driver in those increasing negatives is Republicans hating Democrats more and Democrats hating Republicans," Miller continued. "You don't have a big margin of politically involved people who dislike both parties. You have an electorate that largely likes their side, hates the other, and the people who dislike both parties, and in theory might be open to supporting a third option, are also the least likely to participate or care that a third option exists."
Democrats in the U.S. Senate plan to use procedural moves to delay a vote on Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's appointment to a diplomatic post, citing his record on gay rights, according to a published report.
The report by the Washington bureau of McClatchy, parent company of the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, cited a Democratic aide as saying Democrats would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to take extra steps to get Brownback confirmed for the job of Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration.
That could complicate issues in the Kansas Statehouse, where Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer has been preparing to take over as governor in advance of the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January. Between now and then, the governor's office needs to prepare budget proposals and other legislative initiatives for lawmakers to consider during the session.
Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, did not express concern about the delay when told about the report.
"We have issues here in Kansas to deal with, and what the Democrats do in D.C. is their business. You would think they’d give the same courtesy they gave to Kathleen Sebelius," he said, referring to the former Democratic governor who served as Health and Human Services Secretary in the Obama administration.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, however, said Democrats have a right to object to the nomination.
"I think you should, as a minority party, raise the concerns about the appointments as you see appropriate, and they had the information before them," he said.
During his confirmation hearing Oct. 4, Brownback faced tough questions from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., over his 2015 executive order rescinding workplace protections for LGBT state employees in the executive branch, a policy that had been put in place by Sebelius.
Kaine pointed out that in many parts of the world, gays and lesbians can be imprisoned, or even executed, on the basis of religious laws.
Brownback said his decision to repeal Sebelius' executive order was based on his belief that it was an issue on which the Legislature needed to act.
“That was an order that created a right by the executive branch that wasn’t available to other people and it wasn’t passed by the legislative branch,” Brownback said in response to Kaine's question. “I believe those sorts of issues should be passed by the legislative branch.”
Colyer's spokeswoman Kara Fullmer declined to comment on how a delay in Brownback's confirmation might affect the transition.
"At this point, it doesn’t really help to speculate," she said in an email. "Timing on the confirmation vote is a matter for the Senate to decide. Lt. Governor Colyer is prepared to take the helm in Kansas whenever Gov. Brownback is confirmed."
A former chief of staff to a Kansas House Democratic Caucus was quoted in a national political website Wednesday, saying she was the target of inappropriate sexual advances for years while working for the Legislature.
Abbie Hodgson, formerly of Lawrence, also told The Hill, a Washington-based political news site, that college-age female interns were often called upon to serve as designated drivers after hours to drive inebriated lawmakers home.
Hodgson served as chief of staff under former House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, from 2014 through 2016. In the article, she says that she reported both of those issues to Burroughs and to other House leaders, but when they refused to act, she quit, just two weeks before the 2016 Democratic primaries.
Burroughs disputed that portion of Hodgson’s account. In a separate telephone interview with the Journal-World, he said that as soon as Hodgson reported her allegations he called a meeting of the House Democratic leadership and ordered a stop to the behavior.
Her story was just one example cited in the Hill article detailing how women in state capitols around the country experience sexual harassment on a regular basis. More and more women from all walks of life have been coming forward with similar stories — sometimes posting them on Twitter with the hashtag #MeToo — since the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the widespread sexual misconduct in the film and entertainment industry.
Before working in Burroughs' office, Hodgson had been active in Democratic politics for years and held a number of posts in the administrations of Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson. In 2014, she ran unsuccessfully for the 46th District House seat in Lawrence, the seat formerly held by Rep. Paul Davis.
Hodgson lost the Democratic primary that year to Boog Highberger. During that primary campaign, Highberger was pressured into firing his own volunteer campaign manager, Melinda Henderson, after Henderson posted Hodgson's campaign finance report on Facebook, adding the comment: “For my friends and followers who might be thinking about voting for Opponent because she’s younger than Boog Highberger for State Rep. and has a uterus.”
State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, confirmed Monday that she is considering a run for Kansas Secretary of State next year.
Francisco, a Democrat, said that others have encouraged her to look at the race. But she said she will not make a decision until after the Nov. 7 municipal elections in order to avoid voter confusion.
The Secretary of State's office will be an open contest in 2018 because the incumbent, Kris Kobach, is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Francisco could run for the office without risking her Senate seat because that seat isn't up for re-election until 2020.
Francisco, 67, was first elected to the Senate in 2004. She was just re-elected to her fourth term in 2016. She also served on the Lawrence City Commission from 1979 to 1983.
If she enters the race, she would be the first Democrat to do so, although she said other Democrats are looking at the race as well. No Democrat has won a statewide or congressional race in Kansas since 2006. That was the year Kathleen Sebelius was re-elected governor, Dennis Moore was re-elected to the 3rd District congressional seat, and Paul Morrison, a Republican-turned-Democrat, was elected attorney general.
So far, three Republicans have formed campaign committees to run for the office. They include Rep. Keith Esau of Olathe, House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, also of Olathe, and Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold of Wichita.
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran of Kansas both voted late Thursday to advance a budget resolution that could pave the way for Congress to enact tax cuts similar to those that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback championed in Kansas in 2012, but which state lawmakers repealed earlier this year.
The measure passed by the narrowest of margins, 51-49, on nearly a straight party line vote. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the only Republican to vote no on the measure.
By itself, the nonbinding resolution merely lays out a set of budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. But its passage would mean that the Senate could next pass a tax bill as part of a "reconciliation" process so it would only need 51 votes to pass, instead of the normal 60 votes needed to close debate on a bill.
"Our tax code is burdensome, confusing and outdated,” Roberts, the senior senator from Kansas, said in a statement following the vote. “There is widespread, bipartisan agreement on the need for tax reform, and I’m pleased the Senate took this important step toward providing tax relief to hardworking Americans. I look forward to continuing our work in the Senate Finance Committee to write a tax bill that allows Kansans to keep more of their hard-earned dollars.”
Moran, the state's junior senator, issued a similar statement.
“Our tax code should work for American families, not against them," he said. "Kansans know how critical tax reform is to their ability to find quality jobs, start small businesses, or pay for household items and utility bills every month. In the more than 30 years since we last passed major tax reform, the national and global economies have changed dramatically. We must adapt as well by establishing a fairer and simpler tax code to empower American individuals to succeed and American businesses to compete."
Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are backing a tax plan that includes several elements similar to the controversial tax initiatives that Brownback championed in Kansas: reducing the number of tax brackets and lowering rates across the board; closing many income tax loopholes; and greatly reducing — but not eliminating, as Kansas did — income taxes levied against nonwage business income from partnerships, sole proprietorships, limited liability companies and other so-called "pass-through" entities.
As Brownback and his allies did in championing those kinds of cuts in Kansas, Congressional Republicans argue that they will stimulate job growth and economic expansion.
In Kansas, however, which Brownback said would be a "real live experiment" of the tax cut theory, jobs and gross state product lagged behind the rest of the nation while those policies were in place; state government suffered from severe revenue shortfalls that forced deep cuts in spending on highways, health care and education.
During the 2017 session, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed a bill reversing course on those tax policies with two-thirds majorities in both chambers, overriding Brownback's veto of the bill.
The U.S. House has already approved a similar budget resolution, and negotiations were already underway Friday to find a path for the House to agree to the Senate's changes in order to avoid a lengthy conference committee process.
The entire Kansas delegation to the House, including 2nd District Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Topeka, have expressed their support for the general outline of the tax plan.
In an op-ed column for Fox News, however, Jenkins said Congress had learned from the mistakes in Kansas, and that the federal tax reform bill would be different.
"It’s no secret that Kansas made a few mistakes with its tax reform plan," Jenkins wrote. "First of all, they zeroed out the tax rate for pass-through businesses, which is the tax status used for most small businesses, and failed to erect any guardrails to discourage tax avoidance. This created a loophole that allowed some existing businesses and wealthy individuals to avoid paying income taxes altogether by simply reclassifying as a pass-through and thus create a new 'business' without adding any employees."