When Greg Orman ran as an independent against Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, it was a strange moment in Kansas political history. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on political ads, and as Bob Beatty noted in a recent column, Orman’s campaign “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.” But Roberts still won by a substantial margin: 53 percent to 42 percent.
Even though there was no Democrat on the ballot to siphon votes away from Orman three years ago, he performed remarkably well for an independent in a major election. This fact was probably on Orman’s mind when he declared his candidacy for governor earlier this month.
In 2016, Orman published a book that challenged the dominance of the two major parties in the United States: “A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream.” He tells readers that he wants to start a movement with a goal “no less encompassing than giving Americans an alternative to our corrupt, ineffectual, and polarized two major political parties.” While a substantial proportion of voters can clearly be convinced to support a candidate without an “R” or a “D” next to his or her name, does this mean the establishment of an official third party is the next logical step?
Scott Morgan and Scott Richardson certainly think so. They’re trying to get the 18,000 petition signatures necessary to place their “Party of the Center” on the ballot in 2018. According to Morgan, even an Orman victory in 2018 wouldn’t be enough to substantially shift the political balance in Kansas: “It’s a one-off, personality-driven candidacy. You need something built around a philosophy. People want a label, a shortcut for picking people.”
But how does Morgan know Party of the Center will have a philosophy that can unite all of the voters who have disparate reasons for rejecting both major parties? These people could range from socialists (Bernie Sanders has spent much of his political career as an independent) to libertarians who are radically opposed to government expansion. Of course, plenty of independents will fall somewhere in the middle, but will there be enough of them?
Moreover, while independents have plenty of good arguments against the static political duopoly in our country — surging polarization, a constipated legislative process, etc. — we shouldn’t ignore the liabilities of their project. For example, Orman may be a talented politician with a compelling message, but Kansans need to be realistic about the potential consequences of his candidacy. If you’re not a Kobach supporter (and polling demonstrates that many Kansans aren’t), you should be worried about Orman’s campaign — even if you find him politically appealing. This is because Kobach probably has a larger built-in core of support than any Democrat.
In other words, Orman will pull away the moderate voters that Kobach’s challenger (whoever he or she may be) will desperately need. Independents like Orman, Morgan and Richardson have respectable reasons for trying to establish an alternative to Republican and Democratic dominance, but Kansans need to think very carefully about who they choose to support. If you need any more evidence, recall the 2016 election — what if all the disillusioned Sanders supporters would have voted for Clinton? Just a thought.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.