Bob Beatty: How Greg Orman complicates the gubernatorial race

Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka and a contributor to The Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at bobbeatty1999@yahoo.com.

The 2018 Kansas governor’s race was already set to be the most interesting — or strange, depending on your point of view — in Kansas history.

 

It features the largest number of candidates to ever run, the most controversial candidate (Kris Kobach) since goat gland doctor John Brinkley’s wild candidacy in 1930, a candidate (Jeff Colyer) who is lieutenant governor but acting like governor while he waits to be governor (which may or may not happen any day now) and a bunch of high-school students who found out they could get on national television by running for governor in a state with no age requirements for the office. Also, the Republicans are taking a cue from the Russians and, in the spirit of freedom and democracy, telling their candidates when and where they can debate and dictating to the media what kinds of questions they’re allowed to ask.

Then on Wednesday, it got more interesting — or strange, depending on your point of view — with the entrance of Greg Orman into the race. Orman, you’ll recall, is a millionaire businessman who ran as an independent against Republican Pat Roberts for U.S. Senate in 2014. Orman’s candidacy scared away the Democrat in the race, then-Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, and even scared Roberts enough to make him agree to a primetime TV debate, something incumbent Republican senators are about as apt to agree to as KU scheduling a basketball game with Wichita State. Still, after more than $20 million dollars spent and 53 different TV ads run by Orman, Roberts and outside groups, Roberts prevailed 53 percent to 42 percent.

Orman is running because he believes he has the name recognition and resources to make a competitive run, which is true. Most importantly, he believes at least 40 percent of Kansas voters are willing to leave a major party candidate (when both parties are on the ballot) and vote for an independent — a tenuous proposition at this point.

No doubt Orman is inspired and emboldened by his 2014 race where he scared Roberts, but keep in mind that in that race, there was no Democrat on the ballot. In this race, the Democrats have no intention of dropping out and ceding the non-Republican vote to Orman.

The conventional wisdom right now — which, to be clear, Orman rejects — among many Republicans and Democrats is that Orman’s candidacy will hand the race to the Republicans. They argue that for a non-Republican, non-incumbent to win the governorship in Kansas, he or she must garner all the Democrats, a majority of unaffiliateds and a nice chunk of moderate Republicans, then make no mistakes, cross their fingers and pray. They think there is a base Republican vote, maybe as high as 40 percent, and Orman and the Democrat will battle over the rest, with each getting just enough to elect the Republican.

Orman will argue that he can do what the iconic Jesse Ventura did in 1998 in Minnesota when he won the governor’s race there as a third-party candidate, which was not just steal votes from the other parties, but vastly expand the electorate. He’ll have to get non-voters, especially young people and independents, to turn out and vote. Possible? Of course.

But with all due respect to Orman, he’s no Jesse Ventura. The fact is that in Kansas, it’s a very heavy lift to get non-voters off their duffs to vote, no matter how much they say they’re dissatisfied — something Democrat Paul Davis found out when he ran against Sam Brownback for governor in 2014.

Despite all the questions and possibilities Orman’s candidacy presents, in the end it doesn’t obviate the most fascinating question in state politics today, to be answered on Aug. 7, 2018, in the Republican primary: Do Kansas Republicans want Kris Kobach to be their next governor?

Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka and a contributor to The Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at bobbeatty1999@yahoo.com.

 

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