Government & Politics

Kansas lawmaker leaving Republican Party to join Orman's independent campaign

Why is this Kansas Republican leaving his party to join Greg Orman's campaign?

Sen. John Doll explains his decision to become Greg Orman's running mate and to leave the Kansas Republican Party to become unaffiliated.
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Sen. John Doll explains his decision to become Greg Orman's running mate and to leave the Kansas Republican Party to become unaffiliated.

A Republican lawmaker from western Kansas will give up his membership in the GOP to join Greg Orman’s independent ticket for governor.

State Sen. John Doll of Garden City on Tuesday informed Senate Republican leadership of his decision in a letter that states he will travel to Finney County to change his party registration to unaffiliated.

Doll said he would still like to caucus with the Republicans if Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, allows him.

“I’m not running away from them,” Doll said in an interview Tuesday at Orman’s business office in Olathe. “I’m going to be the same person I’ve always been.”

Wagle's spokeswoman said Wednesday that Doll would be allowed to attend the Republicans' caucus but won't be allowed to ask questions or make comments.

Doll’s letter to GOP leaders states that he is resigning his committee assignments, including his vice chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee. Doll said it would be up to Wagle to determine whether he can serve on committees, but he said his floor vote is more important.

“My vote still counts the same as everybody else’s," Doll said. "My voice is still going to be heard.”

Republicans will still hold a supermajority in the Senate of 30 seats. Democrats hold nine seats. Doll will be the sole independent in the Legislature and could be a key swing vote as lawmakers debate a new school finance plan to satisfy a court order.

Doll, a former mayor of Garden City, served two terms in the Kansas House before being elected to the Senate in 2016 as part of a wave of moderate candidates who ousted conservatives.

“Garden City hired me. I didn’t work for the Republican Party. I didn’t work for the Democratic Party. I worked for Garden City,” said Doll, who has belonged to both parties during his political career.

“When I was elected to the Senate 39th District, they were my employer," he said. "And so there again, when I looked at an issue, I didn’t look at the Republican side or the Democratic side, I looked at how it would be serve the 39th.”

Orman, a Johnson County businessman who has never held elected office, pointed to Doll’s history of public service and his background in western Kansas as two reasons to choose him as a running mate.

“I asked John to be a part of this to provide me really with a voice for western and rural Kansas and to make sure they are represented fully in our administration,” Orman said. “And I suspect that John, who is not shy about sharing his opinions, will share his opinions on a broad range of issues, but that’s the area where John has the expertise, and the experience and the relationships that I don’t have.”

Now that Orman has chosen a running mate, he can begin collecting the 5,000 signatures required to be added to the general election ballot. Orman joked that as the candidates from the two major parties hold a series of debates across the state, he and Doll will debate each other.

Doll said that as a potential lieutenant governor he would like to focus on transportation issues and opening up markets for the state’s agricultural products. He said Kansas farmers have struggled to find markets for their crops in recent years.

“I’ve never seen wheat piled and I saw tons of wheat being piled. We had no place to move it to,” Doll said.

The Republican field includes Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took office after Sam Brownback resigned to take a post in President Donald Trump’s administration, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative firebrand.

Doll said he gravitated toward Orman rather than any of the Republican candidates because he thinks the businessman has the best vision for developing the state economically.

Orman’s candidacy has been criticized by Democratic leaders as potentially boosting the eventual GOP nominee by splitting the opposition vote.

Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Monday that Orman’s candidacy “may provide the only pathway to elect either the continuation of the Brownback administration or Kris Kobach … which I would find to be extremely dangerous for the state of Kansas.”

Sebelius has endorsed state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and the only woman in the field.

Doll, a critic of both Kobach and Colyer, dismissed Sebelius’ concerns.

“Who kinged these people that they’re the only ones who can run?” Doll said. “This is an election. The people get to decide.”

Doll will not be the first independent in the Legislature’s history. At least 30 people have served as independents, according to records from the Kansas State Library.

In 1874, independent Thomas Fenlon served as speaker of the House during a special session when the state dealt with a grasshopper plague.

The state’s first governor, Charles Lawrence Robinson, a Republican, served as an independent in the Legislature during the 1870s, nearly a decade after he was impeached as governor.

Doll appears to be the first independent lawmaker since Walter Hammel of Clay Center, who switched to the Democratic Party in 1931.

The Star's Hunter Woodall contributed to this article.