Dave Helling

Greg Orman’s flop in Kansas governor’s race proves we’re really a two-party country

Greg Orman talks to reporters on challenge to his candidacy for governor

The state objections board met Thursday in Topeka for a hearing about a challenge being made involving petition signatures to place Greg Orman's name on the ballot for governor as an independent. (Aug. 23, 2018)
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The state objections board met Thursday in Topeka for a hearing about a challenge being made involving petition signatures to place Greg Orman's name on the ballot for governor as an independent. (Aug. 23, 2018)

What happened to Greg Orman?

The independent candidate for governor was once considered an existential threat to Democrat Laura Kelly, and therefore to the state of Kansas. Instead, he was largely a nonfactor in the Nov. 6 election, winning just 7 percent of the vote.

The outcome wasn’t a surprise. In fact, there are indications that Orman and the people around him understood the futility of their campaign in late October, as early votes were cast.

But the loss says something important about independent candidates, which is this: They’re usually doomed.

This is evident when you examine Orman’s vote totals as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014. He lost to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts but won 42 percent of the vote.

How can a candidate fall from 42 percent of the vote in 2014 to just 7 percent four years later?

Did Orman change his political views? No. In fact, you could make the argument that his campaign for governor was more issue-centered and coherent than his Senate bid.

Scandal? Again, no. In 2014, there were questions about Orman’s business relationships; in 2018, they never came up.

Both 2014 and 2018 were statewide races, so the electorate was roughly the same. Yes, Kansas turnout grew in 2018, but there is no evidence the new votes went to Orman.

Orman’s defeat in the governor’s race wasn’t because he was wrong on the issues, or faced a tougher opponent, or suffered a scandal, or was unknown to voters.

His vote share dropped 35 points for just one reason: In 2018, he was one of three major candidates. In 2014, it was a two-person race, and although Orman was running as an independent, he was the assumed Democrat.

This seems obvious. It’s also fascinating: For all the complaints about the failures of the two-party system, Orman teaches us that voters still prefer a binary political choice.

Organization is one reason why. Republicans and Democrats have ready-made get-out-the-vote operations, networks of donors, county committees and other essential parts of a political machine. Independents lack that infrastructure.

Election rules favor the two major parties. Taxpayer-supported primaries give Republicans and Democrats exposure that independent candidates must earn by themselves.

Strategic decisions are harder for independents, too. Was there really an appealing middle ground between Kelly, the Democrat in the race, and Kris Kobach, the Republican nominee? If so, Orman couldn’t find it. He lacked a big, attention-getting idea that would draw eyes to his candidacy.

Instead, Orman’s only argument became “I’m not them,” which is hardly enough to move tens of thousands of votes.

Voters say they hate the two parties, but they’re not telling the complete truth. They use party identification as shorthand for political decision-making.

Democrats, they know, stand for certain things. Republicans stand for something else. Independents stand for — what? No one knows for sure.

That’s difficult enough for any candidate. For Orman, it was made worse by the critical nature of the governor’s office: Voters were unwilling to gamble. In the final weeks, Kansas voters turned to their only real choices.

Kobach apparently believed Orman would pull enough votes from Kelly to win. He was wrong. For all the hand-wringing, Orman was never going to change the race for governor.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.