The chaotic Kansas gubernatorial primaries saw a GOP race that came down to just dozens of votes and a push to boot the independent nominee from the ballot. When the dust finally settled in late August, three major candidates had emerged for November’s five-person contest: Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly, and Independent Greg Orman.
Democrats fretted at the time that Orman could be a spoiler candidate, sullying the clear distinction between their moderate nominee and her firebrand, Trump-loving GOP opponent.
Both internal and public polling suggests that may just be the case—injecting even more drama into an already high-stakes race.
The numbers in Kansas have remained remarkably consistent throughout the general election campaign, with Kelly and Kobach neck-and-neck at around 40 percent. Orman has trailed with around 9 percent in all five of the public polls conducted of the race—far from enough to win, but enough, potentially, to affect who does.
“Anywhere from six to seven points upward could impact this race big time,” Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty told TPM. “Because the polls have got Kobach and Kelly virtually tied, and there’s the precedent in the primary where Kobach beat [current Gov. Jeff Colyer] by only 347 votes.”
Those narrow margins are leaving some local Democrats feeling “just crazy” about Orman’s bid, according to semi-retired University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis.
“To me, Greg Orman is seriously contributing to the possibility that Kobach could become governor winning just 43-44 percent of the vote, after winning a minority of Republicans in the primary,” Loomis, who worked for previous Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, told TPM.
“It’s an ego project,” Loomis said of Orman’s candidacy. “And I don’t really understand an ego project that ends with you winning 8 or 10 percent of the vote.”
Orman’s campaign is having none of that kind of talk. The wealthy independent businessman insists that those who resent his campaign are displaying a blind loyalty to a failed two-party system. Rather than just siphoning support from Kelly, Orman said he will draw votes from moderate Republicans, independents, and the unaffiliated. He has called Kobach “unfit to be governor” over his hardline immigration stances.
“Greg Orman has no desire to help Mr. Kobach,” Orman communications director Nicholas Connors told TPM in an email. “Any person who is pushing that narrative is looking to manipulate journalists and voters to undermine the Orman campaign.”
“Republicans and Democrats are entitled to nothing,” Connors continued. “Greg Orman is in the race until the end because he is the best candidate to lead Kansas forward.”
Kansas political observers say that on the ground, the contest has played like a face-off between Kobach and Kelly. In debates, interviews, and ads, the two major-party candidates have saved their fighting words for each other. Kelly has tried to link Kobach to unpopular former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and criticized Kobach’s support for sweeping tax cuts and staunch opposition to undocumented immigration. Kobach has accused Kelly of misrepresenting his record.
“This race is about undoing the devastation of the Brownback experiment and putting our state back on the right track, and that’s what Laura is focused on,” Kelly spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw told TPM when asked about Orman’s candidacy. “Kris Kobach wants to repeat the Brownback experiment and take it even further.”
Emporia State political science professor Michael Smith said that Kelly’s campaign has essentially ignored Orman while trying to appeal to a broad swath of Kansas voters.
“What she’s doing is running on a reputation, which she has had for many terms in the state Senate, as a workhorse,” Smith said. “She’s not flashy; she doesn’t give dramatic speeches.”
Kelly is also well aware of Kansas’ unorthodox political divisions, experts say. The Sunflower State is often described as having three parties: conservative Republican (the Kobach wing), moderate Republicans, and mainstream Democrats. Both Kelly and Orman, a pro-business, socially liberal candidate, will need support from the latter two groups.
“There’s a reason why Democrats aren’t bashing Orman,” Beatty, the Washburn political scientist, said. “Many of his supporters are moderate Republicans who in another state might be Democrats. In Kansas they’re Republican by tradition.”
As Beatty pointed out, Kelly’s campaign has highlighted her support from former Republican Gov. Bill Graves and former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. One September TV ad, “Both,” centers on her endorsements from current Republican state Sen. Barbara Bollier and Democrat state Sen. Tom Hawk.
Orman’s ads, which flooded the airwaves before and after the primary race, focused mainly on the dysfunction of the two-party system. His campaign made the unusual choice to stop running TV ads in mid-September, just as Kelly and Kobach were ramping up their TV spending.
Asked about that move, Orman communications director Connors said he would not “divulge our campaign strategy in public, to our opponents,” but insisted they would be “back on TV” soon enough.
“The million-dollar question in Kansas,” according to Washburn University’s Beatty, is how many voters will ultimately cast their ballots for an independent candidate come November.
“There is a long history of third-party candidates polling better than they perform,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of non-partisan political tip-sheet Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told TPM.
Kansas Democratic Party Executive Director Ethan Corson made the same point, predicting that Orman will “end up performing much more like an asterisk on Election Day.”
“As this race gets closer and closer, as voters start to pay more attention, as the choices really begin to crystallize, people will understand that a vote for Greg Orman really is a vote for Kris Kobach,” Corson said.
As for Kobach, Orman appeared far from his mind when TPM reached him on his cellphone Tuesday shortly before the fourth gubernatorial debate in Wichita.
Asked if he thought Orman could draw support from Kelly, Kobach said only that it was “hard to say” before pivoting back to his Democratic opponent.
“We’re hopeful we can extend our lead, but I don’t think its going to be a walk in the park,” Kobach added. “I think it’ll be a fight to the finish.”