WICHITA, Kan.—In 2000, a wealthy Kansas businessman named Greg Orman decided to write a book. It was going to be called Good Politics Is Bad Policy, and it would explain the distressing phenomenon he perceived—the misalignment of politicians’ incentives with the country’s needs.
Writing a book turned out to be even harder than making millions, and it was never published. But the problem Orman had diagnosed didn’t get any better.
“We’re still sending the worst of both parties to Washington—people who seem more interested in getting reelected than they do in solving problems,” Orman, a tanned, youthful-looking 45-year-old with gelled-up dark hair, said on Wednesday. He was speaking in a windowless room at the top of a bank building in Wichita, to an audience of about 40 retired teachers on folding chairs. “They draw childish lines in the sand, they refuse to cooperate, and as a result, inaction has replaced leadership when it comes to solving our most pressing problems.”
Orman, an independent candidate for Senate, suddenly became the most intriguing person in politics last week, when a court allowed the Democratic candidate to withdraw from the ballot, making Orman the principal opponent of Republican Senator Pat Roberts. This development, in a race nobody expected to be competitive, has shoved into the spotlight an unknown candidate whose pitch against partisanship resonates with a conflict-weary electorate.
“Greg Orman has grabbed this race by the throat,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, noting that Orman leads Roberts in several recent polls. “You just have the sense—I see it every time I talk to people—that politics is broken. When someone reinforces that, saying, ‘Yes, both parties are the problem,’ that really resonates with people right now.”
Control of the Senate could hinge on this unlikely contest between an insistently nonpartisan, Ivy League-educated former consultant and a Republican incumbent who’s spent 33 years in Washington. If elected, Orman says he would caucus with whichever party has the majority. But if there are 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, he would play tiebreaker: Joining the GOP would give them 51 votes; joining Democrats would give them 50 votes plus the vice president. In that case, Orman says, he would ask both parties to commit to issues like immigration and tax reform, and join the one that agreed. “We’re going to work with the party that’s willing to solve our country’s problems,” Orman said in an interview.
Almost every ballot has an independent or third-party candidate who blames the two major parties for America’s problems. Most of them are flakes or gadflies who go unnoticed. But Orman has money, he’s run a smart campaign, and he seems to be in the right place at the right time. A weak Republican incumbent, a Democrat willing to get out of the way, and a state whose Republican majority has been badly split by years of toxic intraparty battles—all these factors have made Kansas uniquely receptive to Orman’s message.
Most of the teachers in Wichita were Democrats, but not Jim Unruh, a 73-year-old Republican who’d come with his wife. Unruh owns an auto-repair business, and his brother is a Republican county commissioner, but he’d decided to support Orman. He told me he had three candidates’ signs in his yard: Paul Davis, the Democrat challenging Governor Sam Brownback; Jean Schodorf, the Democrat for secretary of state; and Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, a Tea Party-aligned conservative. “I think those people can get something done,” he said. “The road we’re going down right now is a washout.”
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You can buy a lot of television ads for a million dollars in Kansas, and that’s what Greg Orman did.
The ads played all over the state starting in July. Two teams of men—one in red shirts, one in blue—stand in a muddy field, pulling in opposite directions on a thick rope. As they grunt and strain, going nowhere, a clean-shaven man in jeans, sitting on a set of bleachers, says, “Washington’s stuck between two parties who care more about winning than they care about our country.” The screen reads “Greg Orman, businessman.”
The ads began airing in the thick of an ugly Republican primary, competing for airtime with volleys of attacks by Roberts and his right-wing challenger, Milton Wolf. Orman’s plea for cooperation was a refreshing contrast with all the negativity.
Roberts scraped through the early August primary by just 7 percentage points. His longtime campaign manager then announced that he would go home—to Virginia—to rest. (Roberts’s residence had been an issue in the primary, when The New York Times revealed that his official home in Dodge City was a friend’s house where he sometimes stayed, and he told a radio interviewer, “Every time I get an opponent—I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home.”)
Having won the primary, Roberts clearly believed the campaign was effectively over. His ads stopped airing—but Orman’s didn’t. And then Orman started to break through. A poll in late August showed the independent taking 20 percent of the vote; Democrat Chad Taylor had 32 percent, and Roberts had 37 percent. Another poll asked who voters would choose between Orman and Roberts. Orman led by 10 points.
On September 3, Taylor formally asked to be removed from the ballot. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican known for his partisan crusades against voter fraud and illegal immigration, tried to reject the request but was overruled by the state supreme court. National Republicans suddenly saw they had a situation on their hands. Behind closed doors, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, gave Roberts an earful. Roberts fired his campaign manager and brought in a new team of D.C. professionals.
The new team was basically starting from scratch, six weeks before Election Day. The new campaign manager was hired two days before the first debate. New campaign ads had to be made; yard signs had to be ordered. The GOP cavalry was called in: Roberts campaigned this week with Bob Dole, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and will be reinforced in the coming weeks by Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Paul Ryan. The zero-to-60 campaign’s most pressing task: to figure out who Greg Orman was and try to convince voters he wasn’t what he seemed.
Orman grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, the second oldest of six children raised principally by his mother, a registered nurse. He spent summers in Stanley, Kansas, working at his father’s furniture store, and decided from an early age he wanted to be a businessman too. His mother was a Democrat, his father a Republican; Greg admired Ronald Reagan and, as a member of the Princeton College Republicans, volunteered for George H.W. Bush in 1988. But in the next election, he warmed to the independent message of Ross Perot, and in his senior yearbook, he chose a Perot quote to accompany his picture.
By 2007, Orman had become disillusioned with the Republican Party of George W. Bush. He formed an exploratory committee to run as a Democrat against Roberts, but abandoned it before becoming an official candidate. Over the years, he has donated to Democratic candidates including Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But he’s also given to Republicans Scott Brown and Todd Akin, as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee. He says he voted for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.