Could Greg Orman — indeed could anyone — be elected Kansas governor running as an independent?
Everybody who knows anything about Kansas politics says no way. So, a contrarian is needed. I volunteer to serve in that role for today only. I will tell you how Orman could win. If he does, he would be a rare bird in recent American politics. Today, in the U.S. there is only one independent serving as governor, and that is Bill Walker in Alaska. That at least proves it can be done.
But perhaps the Kansas vote for a third-party candidate in the presidential race of 1992 is more relevant. That was the year Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate for president against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Nationwide, Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote. But Perot almost turned Kansas politics upside down by taking an astounding 27 percent of the vote. Republican Bush got 38 percent, and Democrat Clinton won 34 percent. Perot proved there is something of an independent streak in Kansas if enough voters find the major party choices unacceptable.
The breakdown among registered voters in Kansas shows the state is not as red as often perceived. An impressive 31 percent of registered voters in Kansas are unaffiliated. That beats the 24 percent who are Democrats. Republicans are at 45 percent, not even a majority. Independents tend to be liberal on social issues but fiscally conservative centrists. That is precisely where Orman stands, which means he could draw very strong support from independents.
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Orman is experienced in politics. In fact, this is not his first statewide campaign. In 2014, Orman ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent against Republican Pat Roberts. The Democratic nominee dropped out, and his name was removed from the ballot. Although Orman captured 42.5 percent of the vote to Roberts’ 53 percent, he proved his political viability. We should remember as late as October that year, one month before the election, major polls showed Orman ahead by as much as 10 points. A month later, a lot of undecided Republicans came home to roost. Orman now reasonably figures that late-deciding Republicans will not come home to roost if Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is their nominee.
Orman has plenty of assets. He brings to the race mega-millions of his own dollars to self-fund an aggressive campaign. He is bright, charming and articulate. Those are important qualities in a candidate. Orman hails from Johnson County, the largest county by population in the state. In fact, against Roberts, Orman lost in Johnson County by only one point.
What Orman must be counting on — or he would not be running — is that the Republican nominee will be the unpopular Kobach. Although Kobach is well-known, his approval ratings are absolutely terrible. The only exception is his base of conservatives who may deliver a win for Kobach in the Republican primary. But in a general election, Kobach’s intense unpopularity could be his undoing.
Orman figures he can capture a large bloc of Democrats who may not be enamored with their candidate. (That calculus could change with the just announced entrance into the race of state Sen. Laura Kelly, a very strong Democrat from Topeka.) Orman also figures Democrats will be desperate to see Kobach beaten by the stronger opponent. Orman believes he will be better positioned to beat Kobach, and he thinks enough Democrats will agree.
So, let’s do the math to see what Orman has to do to pull off an upset. This scenario is based on a large turnout, due to a highly-charged political environment. That favors the more moderate candidate.
Give Orman three out of four unaffiliated voters, which totals 23 percent of all registered voters. Also assume Orman takes 20 percent of the voting Democrats, which would represent 6 percent of all voters. And for the pièce de résistance, Orman steals a whopping 20 percent of Republicans who happen to intensely dislike Kobach enough to cross over. That’s another 9 percent of the total. Add them up, and voila: You get 38 percent for Orman. Time for Orman to celebrate. That likely would be enough to win the governor’s seat in a fragmented three-way race.
Now let’s see if Orman decides to run.