Independent Greg Orman took steps to enter the governor’s race this week – a move that worried Democrats and encouraged Republicans.
Orman, who embraces the social views of Democrats but speaks about fiscal conservatism like a Republican, is taking his second shot at a statewide office, after an unsuccessful bid against U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014.
The wealthy businessman from the Kansas City suburbs could spend millions on the race as other candidates scramble for donations and voter support.
Orman filed paperwork to appoint a campaign treasurer late Tuesday night. A campaign website was online on Wednesday.
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"Today I filed paperwork to create an exploratory committee for a possible 2018 bid for Governor as an Independent candidate," Orman said in a tweet, his only public statement.
Orman will need at least 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Former Sen. Tim Owens, Orman’s campaign treasurer, said voters are looking for something different but don’t want extremist views in either party.
“He’s looking at what can we do in Kansas for Kansans and as a middle-of-the-road person who can work with both sides of aisle and can actually deal with the issues instead of working so much with just party issues,” Owens said. Orman did not return a reporter’s call.
Orman’s campaign website lists leadership, government transparency and growing the state’s economy among his priorities.
Groundwork set for run
Orman has been laying the groundwork for a campaign for several months. The Eagle reported in October that he had done preliminary polling in the governor’s race and had interviewed potential campaign staff.
Orman could finance his own campaign if he chooses. A financial disclosure form he filed during his 2014 run listed between $21.5 million and $86 million in assets.
Aaron Estabrook, a member of the Manhattan-Ogden school board who worked on Orman’s 2014 campaign, said Orman can relate to just about any issue he tackles and is especially knowledgeable about economic issues.
"I think Kansas is lucky to have Greg in the race. And I don’t know — and I haven’t met anyone, especially in politics — who care more about the state than him and his wife, Sybil," Estabrook said.
Democrats are concerned Orman could draw voters away from a Democratic candidate.
The major Democratic candidates for governor are House Democratic leader Jim Ward, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and former Rep. Josh Svaty. A slew of Republican candidates are running, including Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former lawmakers Mark Hutton and Jim Barnett, and businessmen Ed O’Malley and Wink Hartman.
Kansas Democratic national committeeman Chris Reeves said Orman running is what happens "when you have a big ego."
"If you go around and you just say I’m essentially progressive and fiscally conservative, what the hell does that even mean? It kind of comes across like you’re just too embarrassed to run as a Democrat," Reeves said.
Traditional Republicans will not vote for a pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, abortion rights supporter, even if the candidate is fiscally conservative, Reeves said.
Orman could also hamper Democratic fundraising, he said.
"It doesn’t put money in Orman’s pocket. it just means that some people keep their money in their own pocket. Because they’ll just say, ‘Well look, if Orman’s in, this divides the field,’" Reeves said.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running for governor, gave Orman a much warmer reception.
"Come on in. The more the merrier," Kobach said.
Kobach was coy when asked if he thought Orman would benefit him in the general election if he wins the primary. "It seems that the Democrats believe that to be true," he said.
"It doesn’t change our plan at all," Kobach said. "As a practical matter, it gives a liberal two choices now on the general election ballot. In my view, Orman is a Democrat in independent clothing."
Kobach raised more than $100,000 in Johnson County last week at a fundraiser with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son and current head of the Trump family’s business operations.
"I think Orman’s biggest asset is his checkbook," Kobach said. "There’s no question about that, so he’s not to be discounted by any stretch."
Ward said he welcomed Orman to the race.
“Kansans deserve a vigorous debate on what they want for their future,” Ward said in a text message. “I am already a strong voice in that debate. Greg Orman’s just another person I’m going to beat.”
Breaking the ‘two-party oligopoly’
Orman's decision to wade into the race was applauded by Charles Wheelan, the founder of The Centrist Project, a national organization dedicated to electing independents as a way to shift American politics to the middle.
"A win for Greg in Kansas would signal for people across the country that independents are a viable option for breaking the two-party oligopoly," said Wheelan, a senior lecturer at Dartmouth University. "When you see somebody like Greg that signals, wow, there is another option here."
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said Orman would effectively put two Democrats on the ballot. He also said Orman’s entry raises questions about who will receive donations from Democrats: the Democratic candidate, or Orman?
"It’s really going to confuse the Democratic voter over which of the two candidates they’re going to support," Arnold said.
But Owens suggested that Orman would be able to attract Republican voters, especially if Kobach is the nominee. He also said he doesn’t believe the Democrats currently have a strong enough candidate to win.
“If you give the Republicans a chance to vote for somebody else who is a good, strong Kansas candidate and they have the opportunity to vote for a Greg Orman without having to vote for the other party, they’re going to take a shot at that,” Owens said.
Both Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, and Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Orman will need to draw in new voters in order to succeed.
"He needs to expand his piece of the pie," Miller said. "If his piece of the pie is just gobbling up the Democratic vote against Kobach, well then they’re both going to lose against Kobach."