Government & Politics

Independent Greg Orman reshuffles the race for Kansas governor

Independent Greg Orman on how partisan politics prevents progress

Kansas Independent Greg Orman described how he sees ever-increasing partisan politics making it harder to gain compromises for meaningful legislation. Orman made the comments during a public forum on elections sponsored by American Public Square i
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Kansas Independent Greg Orman described how he sees ever-increasing partisan politics making it harder to gain compromises for meaningful legislation. Orman made the comments during a public forum on elections sponsored by American Public Square i

A Johnson County businessman with tens of millions in assets took the first major steps Wednesday toward an independent candidacy for governor.

Greg Orman, who mounted a failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2014, filed paperwork with the state to establish a campaign committee and begin fundraising. He also launched a campaign website, outlining greater government transparency and growing the Kansas economy as major policy goals.

“I’m a political Independent for one really simple reason — I don’t believe the current system is working for the American people or the citizens of Kansas. The two major parties seem to care more about seeing the other party fail than they care about our country succeeding,” Orman says in a statement on the site.

The news was met with groans by Kansas Democrats who say Orman’s candidacy will boost the Republican candidate in the 2018 general election by pulling votes away from Democrats.

Most Republicans will not vote for Orman, who is fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, contended Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic Party’s national committeeman.

“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.

Orman could hamper Democratic fundraising, Reeves said.

“It doesn’t put money in Orman’s pocket,” Reeves said. “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.’ 

The Johnson County businessman referred to his campaign as exploratory and his candidacy as possible rather than a definite prospect. His team said in a text message that he wasn’t doing any interviews on his exploratory campaign at this time.

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, who is a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College. “When you see somebody like Greg that signals, wow, there is another option here.” 

Wheelan said his organization would fully back Orman’s candidacy. 

“I think it’s a huge positive for Kansas. Given the current climate both in Kansas and across the country, I think he’s going to poll aggressively from across the political spectrum,” Wheelan said, noting bipartisan frustration with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. “Kansas seems like a place that is ripe for someone who is not affiliated with a party to win.” 

Orman promises on his campaign site to “to pursue policies that open government up to the people of Kansas, not close it down.”

The Star documented last month a myriad ways in which state and local governments in Kansas withhold information from citizens. Orman promised to release a “transparency blueprint” with the goal of “empowering the citizens of Kansas to be active participants in their government.”

To get on the ballot as an independent, Orman will need to collect at least 5,000 signatures.

Orman challenged U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, losing to the incumbent Republican by 11 percentage points in an election that saw millions of national dollars pour into Kansas with control of the U.S. Senate at stake.

Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee chair, Danny Diaz, campaign manager for Jeb Bush, Greg Orman, former independent U.S. Senate candidate in Kansas, Jacqueline Salit, president of Independent Voting and Elizabeth Vonnahme, UMKC asso

Democrats essentially cleared the field for Orman in that election. The party’s nominee, Chad Taylor, withdrew from the race and the party refused to appoint a replacement candidate.

The party has no plans to give Orman similar deference in 2018 with the governor’s mansion up for grabs.

“Democrats aren’t going to forfeit the race to him. Look what happened last time we elected a rich egomaniac who’s never served or had any history of political experience,” said Ethan Corson, the spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, in a clear reference to President Donald Trump.

Orman’s assets were estimated to fall between $21.5 million and $86 million when he filed a financial disclosure form to run for U.S. Senate in 2014. His investments include ventures from real estate to sports equipment.

He donated nearly $2.5 million of his own money to his campaign in 2014 and lent his campaign an additional $1.4 million.

He could expend similar — or greater — resources in the race for governor, which promises to see millions spent by candidates on each side.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is seeking the Republican nomination, raised more than $100,000 in Johnson County last week at a fundraiser that saw him joined on stage by 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.”

Kobach was coy when asked whether, if he wins the Republican primary, he thinks Orman will benefit him in the general election. “It seems that the Democrats believe that to be true,” he said.  

“It doesn’t change our plan at all. 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 added, “The more, the merrier.”  

Former state Sen. Tim Owens, Orman’s campaign treasurer, said Orman would be able to attract Republican voters, especially if Kobach is the nominee. He also said he doesn’t think 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.

Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said Republicans have been tracking the possibility that Orman would enter the race for more than a year.

“I could see where he thinks he has an opening here,” Arnold said, noting the crowded field of 21 candidates. However, Arnold called Orman the de facto Democrat in the 2014 race and predicted that his candidacy would hurt the chances of the eventual Democratic nominee.

“It definitely changes the dynamics of the race,” he said. “Obviously, we believe that will help the Republican. But either way, we believe the Republican will prevail in our governor’s race.”

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, noted that Orman received fewer votes as a Senate candidate in 2014 than Democrat Paul Davis did in the race for governor during the same election.

Very few voters would have voted for Brownback and Orman in 2014, Miller said, questioning whether Orman would be able to build a coalition broad enough to win in 2018 with a Democrat also on the ballot.

“No matter what voters says about the two parties and the potential appeal of independent candidates … most voters even in Kansas are still party voters,” Miller said. “We don’t see that negativity, which is long-standing, translating into independents actually winning.”

The most likely scenario is that the anti-Kobach vote will be split between Orman and the eventual Democratic nominee, Miller said.

The Democratic field includes Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former Kansas Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty of Ellsworth.

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.”

A Facebook group is attempting to draft Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, into the race as well. Holscher, who would be the only woman in the race if she entered, was skeptical of Orman’s chances Wednesday.

“I would say as a private citizen, Mr. Orman has every right to explore entering the race,” she said. “I think that he’ll likely discover that, from this exploration, Kris Kobach will be the real winner from an Orman candidacy.

“I know many community leaders have asked Orman not to run for that reason alone, out of the fear that he will be the spoiler who elects Kobach as governor.” 

Orman’s supporters, however, see an opening for the businessman in a state that shifted to the political center in the 2016 election.

“Kansas is lucky to have Greg in the race. I don’t know anyone who cares more deeply about Kansas,” said Aaron Estabrook, a member of the Manhattan school board who served as field director for Orman’s 2014 campaign. 

“Things were different in 2014. As you know, control of the Senate was at stake. That’s not the issue here,” Estabrook said when asked to gauge the independent’s chances in the crowded field. “This is about the individual.”

Listen: Deep Background podcast

An independent candidate prepares to run for Kansas governor | Independent Greg Orman is inching closer to a run for governor in Kansas. Bryan Lowry, the Star's lead political reporter, and columnist Dave Helling discuss the implications of an Orman candidacy — and what it means for Kansans, and the future of the state.

Listen to past episodes here or subscribe on your favorite podcasting app.

The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.  

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3