Bill Graves, the last moderate Republican governor of Kansas, endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly in the gubernatorial race this week — his first public endorsement of a Democrat ever for statewide office. Sure, Graves and Kelly are both relatively centrist, but the shocker was Graves endorsing at all, especially after sitting out the 2014 election.
One compelling question in the governor’s race is which contender — Kelly or Independent Greg Orman — is best positioned to challenge Republican Kris Kobach. Who is the viable anti-Kobach? The Graves endorsement gives Kelly credibility for that title, especially with unhappy moderate Republicans.
Bluntly, Orman would have loved to get the Graves endorsement. It would have been a coup for him, and I would not be writing this column. But that did not happen. And with Election Day rapidly approaching, Orman is running out of time to convince Kansans that he is a viable candidate.
The two major non-Kobach’s in the race have had roughly nine months since they announced to get traction with voters. Nine months to march in parades, air television ads and sway us. Yes, there are two critical months left, but most of this campaign is behind us. And those months have put Orman in the role of spoiler, not leading contender.
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We only have two public polls of the race. One shows Kelly 36 percent, Kobach 35 percent, and Orman 12 percent. The more recent poll shows Kobach 39 percent, Kelly 38 percent, and Orman 9 percent. In English, that means that Kelly and Kobach are effectively tied, with Orman in distant third. That second poll shows that among Independents, Kelly leads with 42 percent, Kobach 26 percent, and Orman pulling up the caboose with 12 percent.
Now, Orman has countered with polls of imaginary elections where only he or Kelly are on the ballot against Kobach. The problem for Orman is that those matchups are pure electoral fanfiction, and impossible fantasies since Kansas law prevents him and Kelly from coming off the November ballot.
What Orman has not done is release any polling showing himself as viable. No numbers on the three-way race. No polling showing he has strong appeal with Independents. No data contradicting the two public polls that showed that Kansans dislike Orman more than they like him. Complete silence.
Things were supposed to be different for Orman. Or so his fans said. Voters were supposed to rally to his Independent experiment. Kansans were supposed to swoon at the wealthy businessman who swoops in to fix government and upend politics (hello, Donald Trump). Orman’s money was supposed to make him viable. Moderate Republicans were supposed to back him. Democrats were supposed to nominate a different and weaker candidate — something that Orman’s allies pushed when they attacked Kelly in her primary. Orman was supposed to be the anti-Kobach. But right now, that all looks like more electoral fanfiction.
Maybe Orman thinks that he can turn things around by November. Perhaps, though time is not on his side. Or maybe Orman miscalculated his political appeal? Maybe his strong Senate run in 2014 was more about Pat Roberts being unpopular than it was about Orman being appealing?
For anti-Kobach Kansans, do you have the luxury of choice in a state as Republican as Kansas? Orman guaranteed divided opposition to Kobach on the ballot, and Kobach would love for you to think that you can vote for the third place spoiler with no consequences. Unless this race changes dramatically in Orman’s favor by November, you can choose to divide yourselves in the voting booth, but you may discover that a Kobach governorship will not be just more electoral fanfiction.
Patrick Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.