Greg Orman is an Independent shaking up Kansas

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What an Independent’s standing in blood-red Kansas says about the state of today’s GOP

The biggest news we’ll see all week — maybe all month — broke late last Wednesday, as the Democratic nominee for Senate in Kansas, Chad Taylor, dropped out of the running to create a two-way race between Senator Roberts and independent candidate Greg Orman.

The move isn’t coming completely out of left field. Various local newspapers like the Hays Daily News have called for Taylor to step aside to give Orman a clear shot at defeating Roberts. That editorial came on the heels of a Democratic congressional candidate’s endorsement of Orman over Taylor, while the influential group Traditional Republicans for Common Sense also announced its backing of Orman on Wednesday.

So the signs have been building for weeks, but it’s still surprising to see a major-party nominee who’s untarnished by scandal step aside so abruptly. Surprising, but gratifying, because it transforms a probable Republican hold into the best pick-up opportunity in the nation for Democrats. Chad Taylor, who narrowly won the Democratic primary, is leaving the race for a greater good that validates his party’s trust in him. With this selfless move, he’s shown that he’s a Democrat.

51Bc09lFSKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You might be thinking that that’s all very nice, but this is still Kansas — the ruby-red state that has only elected GOP senators since 1932. It’s true. Kansas is the Democratic Party’s longest drought in the nation at the Senate level. It’s never sent an Independent candidate to the Senate, either. It’s been so reliably Republican in federal races for the last thirty years that it inspired the title for the deeply illuminating book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. The story explores how it came to be that a poverty-stricken state like Kansas (and many others) came to be such a reliable stronghold for an increasingly plutocratic Republican Party.

So yes, a long drought, but all the signs point to the strong possibility that that might change this November. Pat Roberts has just survived a ferocious Republican primary, where as was the case in numerous states throughout the land, the incumbent Republican was grilled for not being fire-breathing enough in his opposition to the Obama agenda. At particular issue was the senator’s residency in the town where Kansas voters keep sending him; he’d spent only a handful of days in Kansas over the last year.

Roberts has been crippled by this primary, and the wounds are still fresh. We’re looking at a senator who is so weak politically, he was unable to win 50 percent of the vote in his primary against Dr. Milton Wolf, a challenger who was revealed to have posted some gruesome X-rays of his former patients online, accompanied by some gallingly offensive comments.

And the senator is clearly off his game. The 78-year-old senator who is unaccustomed to having a real race on his hands, almost ended his career this summer with a Freudian slip in an interview. “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home.”

A recent Public Policy Polling survey found Senator Roberts with a seven-point lead in a three-way race, ahead thanks to a dynamic that evenly split the anti-Roberts vote between Taylor and Orman. But the same survey found that should either of the challengers drop out, Roberts would be in real trouble. In a one-on-one contest, Orman led Roberts 43-33, taking the lion’s share of Taylor’s support and establishing a clear lead.

Pat Roberts (Wikipedia)
Pat Roberts (Wikipedia)

And that’s not just an outlier result. When Taylor was still in the race, Rasmussen had Roberts’ lead down to just four points. A Survey USA poll, released the day before Taylor’s withdrawal, showed Roberts leading by just five points, mired at 37 percent. He may pick up a point or two with Taylor’s exit. But the vast majority of the 32 percent of respondents who were supporting the Democrat aren’t suddenly going to decide that Senator Roberts has been underrated all along. They should be Orman’s for the picking.

And if this 10-point lead weren’t black enough news for Roberts — consider this: These numbers are coming from an electorate that’s mostly unfamiliar with Orman’s name. He clocks in at 36 percent name recognition, while voters that do know of him report liking him by a two-to-one margin. This means Orman has room to soar even higher as he becomes better-known, and he’ll have the funds to introduce himself on Kansas’ cheap media markets.

Republicans Rally for Orman

What makes the picture even more encouraging for Democrats is that Roberts won’t be saved by the coattails from a double-digit Republican win anywhere in the state. That’s because Kansas is ground zero for a voter rebellion against a GOP-led state government that’s as reviled as it is extreme.

In 2010, the Koch Brothers funded a campaign to ensure full Tea Party control in Kansas’ state government. Their method was simple: In a state where Democrats weren’t a factor, they would target Republicans who had a history of moderation, purge them in primaries, and elect true-blood conservatives who would transform Kansas into their own political New Jerusalem.

It worked.

Sam Brownback rode the wave to the governor’s mansion and pursued the far-right agenda that had been thwarted by a core of moderate Republicans in the old days.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (Wikipedia)
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (Wikipedia)

The political geography of Kansas is unique among the 50 states. Nowhere else in modern American history was a moderate Republican wing so powerful, and in the old days the battle was less about Democrats versus Republicans and more about moderates versus conservatives. And the moderates haven’t gone away. They’re working overtime to defeat Governor Brownback and his extremist allies, therefore sending the message that after a freak exile, moderate Republicans in Kansas are officially back.

And they’re signing on to Orman’s campaign. Even before Taylor’s departure, Orman had already won the backing of the moderate group Traditional Republicans for Common Sense. It’s a powerful group of Kansans that includes two former U.S. Senators, two lieutenant governors, and dozens of former state lawmakers. This isn’t some rag-tag group of primary losers that the Tea Party has derided them as, either. They’re lawmakers with over 700 years of experience serving Kansas between them, political players with Rolodexes, contacts, and followers that they can and will send out to battle for Greg Orman’s cause … in a big way.

What Will Orman Do?

Assuming that political gravity asserts itself in Kansas as it seems to be doing, and Pat Roberts meets the fate typically reserved for incumbents sporting 27 percent approval ratings, what will the Independent candidate do when he comes to Washington?

Shrewdly, he won’t say for now. Greg Orman has a past in both Democratic and Republican politics. He describes Ronald Reagan as a hero of his — there’s a picture on his campaign website of the two of them shaking hands in the ’90’s. A member of Princeton’s College Republicans, he once drove President George H.W. Bush to a campaign event.

But he drifted away from the party after the 2000 election, disgusted by the runaway spending he saw under George W. Bush, while also being turned off by the GOP’s increasingly hard line on social issues. He briefly explored a run for Senate in 2007 as a Democrat, but ultimately declined to run. The experience, he says, was final confirmation to him that he didn’t feel truly comfortable in either party.

If Orman wins in November and one party clearly has a hold on the Senate regardless of what he decides, a strong incentive will exist for him to caucus with whomever has the majority, the same path followed by Independent Angus King in 2013. But if control of the Senate is up in the air, things get extremely interesting.

Orman meeting President Reagan. (Campaign courtesy)
Orman meeting President Reagan. (Campaign courtesy)

If Orman is assured of being in the majority — and thus wielding at least a little influence right off the bat — personal considerations trump all else. We can be assured that Reid and McConnell will offer him any chairmanship he wants, so the question becomes: Who does Greg Orman want to see as Majority Leader?

Or more accurately, who does he really not want to see as Majority Leader?

Though his fiscal conservatism makes him sound like a Republican today, his history makes him seem like he really means it — in other words, he’s not one of the faux deficit scolds who will drop the act as soon as a Republican takes the White House. His website describes his views as “socially tolerant,” which sounds like a dog whistle in Republican Kansas. It goes on to say he believes that “people’s private lives should remain private, and government shouldn’t interfere with the choices people make for themselves.” Could that be coded speech revealing that he sees little value in the Republican platform of denying people the right to marry, and taking away women’s freedom to make choices concerning their own bodies?

The best clue of all might be presented in Orman’s take on the unbelievable demagoguery and brinksmanship that plays out in the Senate on a daily basis. When asked about his concerns over the deficit, he noted he’s always been for the United States moving to live within its means, but added, “If I’m faced with a choice between defaulting on our debt and keeping government open, I choose sanity.”

Sanity. A word choice that implies, by its definition, that the alternative—the constant threat of default engineered by a Republican Congress—is insanity.

Orman at his campaign office. (Campaign courtesy)
Orman at his campaign office. (Campaign courtesy)

Greg Orman gives every sign of being politically astute. In addition to being a highly successful businessman who’s employed hundreds of people and overseen a revenue explosion for his energy company that brought in almost a billion dollars, he’s also taken the time to follow both Kansas and national politics closely. He knows about Kansas’ woeful economic record under Brownback and his allies, and he’s also well aware of the fates of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, Dick Lugar, and so many others — all of them Republicans who dared suggest at one point that that they were open to bipartisanship and compromise with Obama, and paid the electoral price at the hands of Republican voters.

Greg Orman’s political brand and worldview just wouldn’t sell with that crowd. He’s shrewd enough to know that. So pitching tents with today’s GOP can’t be where his head’s at.

And given his message, it can’t be where his heart’s at, either.

His campaign is centered around ideas and values that seem to rule out this path for him. Listen to his speeches, go to his events, watch his campaign ads, and a truly refreshing picture emerges. It’s the picture of someone who’s earnest about the country’s problems, eager to tackle them, and at the end of the day willing to accept half a loaf at the end of negotiations, all while practicing bipartisanship, moderation, and open-mindedness.

In other words, everything the Tea Party is not.