As the 2018 elections approach, Greg Orman continues to do the citizens of Kansas a disservice with his dead-in-the water independent campaign. His floundering effort, with its treasurer resigning and endorsing Democrat Laura Kelly, is denying Kansas voters a clear referendum-like choice on whether to reject or embrace Sam Brownback’s policies.
To review, Brownback barely defeated House Minority Leader Paul Davis in 2014. Opinions differ as to why, but I see the wave of GOP outside money that washed over Kansas in support of endangered Sen. Pat Roberts as nationalizing the entire election and helping Brownback eke out a victory. Indeed, approval for Brownback’s tax policies was already underwater in 2014, and it sank lower after the election.
In 2016, Brownback was not on the ballot, but many right-wing Republicans, who had supported his extensive, high-income-oriented tax cuts, proved vulnerable. A host of moderate Republicans and Democrats won enough seats to override Brownback’s 2017 veto of higher income taxes and then, in 2018, these legislators responded to the Kansas Supreme Court by passing a $500 million increase in school funding.
Score one (2014) for Brownback and one (2016) for his opponents. Nevertheless, neither election represented an actual referendum on Brownback and his policies, given his absence from the 2016 ballot and the Roberts factor in 2014. Moreover, with Brownback gone from the state and the introduction of independent Orman, the 2018 election will also constitute an imperfect referendum.
Regardless, Brownback’s legacy powerfully affects this contest for governor.
Most remarkable in 2018 is Kris Kobach’s complete embrace, and then some, of Brownback’s tax-cutting experiment, albeit with a few twists. He simultaneously argues that he will fund classroom education (by his definition) and rebuild our infrastructure, all through economic growth. That’s Brownback reincarnated.
As a social conservative, Kobach has moved further right than Brownback in advocating against non-existent voter fraud and beating the anti-immigrant drum as loud as he can.
In sum, Kobach has doubled-down on Brownback’s far-right record.
If this election posed a simple yes-no vote on Brownback’s legacy or Kobach’s policy positions, Kobach would likely lose. Instead, the 2018 governor’s race comes down to its candidates. Putting aside the minor independent candidate and the Libertarian, a straight-up contest between Republican Kobach and Democrat Laura Kelly would probably, even in red-state Kansas, elect the moderate Democrat, given Kobach’s apparent ceiling of 43 or 44 percent.
While not as flashy as Kobach (no machine gun trucks), Kelly may well be exactly the person to continue the progress of the last two legislative sessions, to say nothing of prudently addressing education, health care (expanding Medicaid), and infrastructure. A 14-year state senator, Kelly would bring a range of legislative experience not seen since the productive Bennett-Carlin-Hayden years, 1974-1990.
Enter the man behind door No. 3, independent Greg Orman, who turns the entire idea of a Brownback referendum on its head. If Orman, with his steady nine-percent support in the polls, siphons off enough votes, mostly from Kelly, the state could easily elect a minority-supported governor who has negative approval ratings and who supports the failed economic policies of Sam Brownback. That would be a travesty.
To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, “It can happen here.” But it need not. As Orman supporters go to the polls, they should think twice, or three times, before wasting a vote that would allow the widely discredited views of Kobach and Brownback to prevail.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.