With seventy-some days to the 2018 general election, Greg Orman has become reviled by Democrats and others as a “spoiler,” who could easily help far-right Republican Kris Kobach win election as governor of Kansas.
It didn’t have to be that way.
In 2014, heading into the last few days of his U.S. Senate campaign, Orman was running neck and neck with three-term incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. His funding was adequate, his name recognition had shot up, and his independent campaign’s theme of shaking things up in gridlocked Washington resonated with Kansas voters.
Most importantly, Democrat Chad Taylor, never an enthusiastic candidate, had abandoned the race, narrowing the choice to Republican Roberts or Independent Orman.
Huge sums of outside money came in to support Roberts, nationalizing an election that could determine control of the Senate. Although polls showed them essentially tied as election day neared, Kansas Republicans eventually came home, and Greg Orman lost the race, 54 percent – 43 percent. Still, he had run a highly competitive campaign and attracted a host of supporters. At the same time, despite his protestations, Kansans viewed him as a de facto Democrat.
If, on December 1, 2014, Orman had announced that he was a Democrat and was going to work hard on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2016, with his troops, his money, and his personal appearances, he could have traveled across the state, demonstrating his talents and winning over party activists from Garden City to Gardner.
Given the historic unpopularity of Governor Sam Brownback and his tax policies, 2016 shaped up as a likely win for Democrats; indeed, it was, especially in the Kansas House. Orman, rightfully or not, could have taken credit for their performance, and many successful candidates would have expressed gratitude for his support.
In the wake of the 2016 election, he could have made the rounds of Democratic county events, talked with party elites, and likely convinced them that his moderate policies would play well in the 2018 governor’s race. With Paul Davis seeking the second district congressional seat, Greg Orman might well have cleared the field by announcing in July 2017 his candidacy for governor.
Ironically, he could have run on much the same moderate-centrist policies that he has historically espoused. With no voting record, he could glide above the issues that divided candidates in the 2018 primary. Moreover, with his independent background and Democratic label, he could attract moderate voters as right-wing Republicans faced off against each other.
Thus, heading into this September’s State Fair debate, Orman could be facing off against Kris Kobach, with his limited upside and assorted baggage. Orman would stand as the single candidate representing moderate Kansans, eager to maintain the momentum of the 2016 election and the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s tax policies.
In short, with the essential coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans, Greg Orman might well be – right now -- the favorite to win the governorship in 2018.
Of course, that did not happen, and now he sits at 10-12 percent in a tough three-way race, where his only role is as spoiler, who will allow Kobach to become governor of Kansas with 40-42 percent of the total vote.
Maybe this path was never in the cards, but for a conventionally ambitious politico, it seems straightforward. That’s not Greg Orman, who, for whatever reasons, has chosen a far more destructive route, rather than working step by step to build together a moderate majority in Kansas.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.