Republicans never thought they’d have to fight for the safe senate seat in Kansas.
But now, with control of the senate hanging in the balance, the GOP is facing an unexpected threat — surging independent candidate Greg Orman, who’s won the support of many Democrats after their lackluster nominee suddenly withdrew from the campaign this week. It turns out that registered independent voters outnumber Democrats in the Sunflower State and polls show that the 45-year-old, first-time independent candidate is beating unpopular Republican incumbent Pat Roberts by ten points in a head-to-head race.
“I’m fiscally responsible and socially tolerant,” explains Orman, a businessman and one-time college Republican who counts Ronald Reagan and Kansan Bob Dole among his political heroes. But like many independent centrists, he feels the GOP has moved too far too the right in recent years, while Democrats still don’t sufficiently empathize with bottom line fiscal realities that business-owners deal with everyday. Most of all, Orman reflects a bubbling Main Street frustration with hyper-partisan gridlock.
“We need to get Congress back in the business of solving problems,” Orman says. After starting and selling an energy business, Orman founded the Common Sense Coalition in 2010, which he describes as being “focused on giving a home to Americans who didn’t feel like they had a home in either party.” Things have only gotten worse over the past four years. “People are really turned off by what we’ve seen” in Congress, he says: “A turn to extremism and an unwillingness to solve problems, drawing childish lines in the sand and refusing to cooperate.”
The fact that this message is resonating in red dirt Kansas reflects why reports of a Republican mid-term wave election may be overstated. The local political conditions are the result of what might be called Brownback Backlash. Social conservative governor Sam Brownback has sowed the seeds of a centrist rebellion by indulging ideological obsessions and pursuing purges of moderate Republicans. With a 34 percent approval rating, Brownback is now trailing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis. But while Pat Roberts was fighting off a Tea Party primary challenge, the Democratic Senate nominee Chad Taylor couldn’t gain any traction. With just $1,600 in his campaign coffers, a PPP poll showed the Democrat losing to Roberts, while the same poll showed independent Orman could beat Roberts outright in a head to head race by picking up support from alienated moderate Republicans as well as independents and Democrats. As evidence of Orman’s crossover appeal, 70 local Republican former elected officials from the centrist wing of the GOP have endorsed Orman over Roberts. That’s not subtle — it’s a stampede.
“Voters in Kansas are searching for an alternative to both parties,” says Orman pollster David Beattie. “Greg's support is based on voters across party lines who feel that both parties in Washington are to blame for the gridlock and paralysis.”
If he gets sent to the Senate, Orman’s aim is to restore the strength of the common sense center by working with independent-minded folks on both sides of the aisle. He’d be following the lead of Maine’s independent Senator Angus King in carving out a new coalition that could hold the balance of power in a closely divided Senate.
“I don’t think either Harry Reed or Mitch McConnell has demonstrated enough bipartisanship to earn my vote for majority leader,” says Orman. “I’d encourage both parties to select for majority leader one of the senators who have actually demonstrated a willingness to work in a bipartisan way to solve problems.”
Orman sidesteps mushy moderate stereotypes with a willingness to apply some policy specifics to his “fiscally responsible, socially tolerant” mantra. While his primary campaign focus is on fiscal issues, he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s pro-choice and pro-marriage equality. “As a man, I’m never going have to make the decisions that a woman makes. I trust that the women of Kansas are smart, and that they can make the decision about their own reproductive health. I do believe as it relates to marriage equality that if two adults decide that they want to enter into a lifetime commitment with each other, that the federal government shouldn’t prevent that from happening.”
And while he may be new to campaigns, Orman doesn’t shy away from punching at the incumbent. “Pat Roberts of ten years ago is very different than the Pat Roberts of today. Pat Roberts of ten years ago was much more moderate and, and tended to be viewed more as a problem solver. But over the last ten years, he’s taken a very sharp turn to the right. If you look at his voting record over the last 18 months it’s largely indistinguishable from Ted Cruz,” says Orman, invoking the Tea Party cheerleader of the government shutdown. “He’s clearly more concerned about getting re‑elected than he is about serving the people of Kansas. He voted against the Farm Bill. … He stood on the floor of the senate with Bob Dole and proceeded to vote against the UN Treaty on Disabilities Bill, and maybe worse of all, when the VA Reform Bill came out for a vote in the United States Senate, he didn’t even honor men and women in uniform by voting.”
Orman will take on Roberts in person during their first televised debate Saturday. But Republicans are fighting to keep the Democrat’s name on the ballot, with the GOP Secretary of State denying Taylor’s request to drop out of the race, a move that Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill slammed as “putting his finger on the scales.” Legal challenges are sure to follow with the surreal spectacle of Democrats fighting to make their nominee’s invisible name on Election Day. On the flipside, Republican panic about suddenly having a Kansas in play against an independent is reflected in the national party essentially taking over Pat Roberts’ campaign. They can’t afford to lose a supposedly safe seat.
All this high stakes political poker shouldn’t obscure the larger dynamic. Independent voters — the largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate — are dramatically under-represented in our politics and their ranks have grown at precisely the same time that the two parties have become more polarized. The populist anger at Washington incumbents in this election is directed at the dysfunctional divisions in DC. Candidates who can channel that frustration while offering fresh alternatives to the tired old “either-or “stalemate debates can break through. And the prospect of an independent caucus could change Senate dynamics by creating new coalitions. So if you hate hyper-partisanship and government gridlock, pay close attention to the Kansas Senate race, and hope that this Mr. Smith gets sent to Washington.