The point, they say, of campaign debates is to give the public a chance to get to know the candidates and understand the differences between them on issues, policy and the like.
When I watched the KCPT Kansas Gubernatorial Debate that was hosted by the Johnson County Bar Association last week, prepared to follow the nuances of the discussion, I was instead struck by something else entirely. There were three candidates on the stage. Three. A Republican. A Democrat. And an Independent. And everyone acted like this was the most normal thing in the world.
The Republican nominee was Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and Trump ally, who won a hard-fought GOP primary in which the moderate Republican nearly bested him. Kobach has a national reputation as a hard-line conservative on immigration and cutting spending, and he largely lived up to his reputation. So be it, Kansas is a red state and has harbored such politicians for some time.
The Democrat was Laura Kelly, a state senator who is a champion of teachers and early childhood development programs, and has, unfortunately, voted in support of some disastrous Republican proposals, including some from Kobach’s office, pleading to the pressures of living under red rule.
And then there was the independent, Greg Orman, a businessman and entrepreneur with deep roots in Midwest politics, and now a veteran of the emergent independent political movement.
What was immediately remarkable was that Orman was not on the stage because KCPT had decided to be “fair” and include “minor candidates.” Nor was he there because one or both of the major party candidates had decided it would “help” them to have him in the mix. He was there because he is a major contender for the governorship.
Now, here’s the thing. Orman has been propelled to that position by his standing as an independent champion for nonpartisan government and against the corruption and self-interest of the two-party system. He arrives on that stage without a party, without having served in elective office, and without the approval of anyone but the voters. (Correction: I’m sure he needed approval from his tough-minded wife Sybil). And while no one at the debate, including Orman, spoke about how it is that he came to be on a stage that is normally reserved only for Republicans and Democrats, it is a crucial part of the story of this campaign and of the chaotic and independent regeneration of our political life that is now underway.
Before I go on, full disclosure. I am an Orman supporter. I backed his 2014 bid as an independent for the US Senate in which he racked up 42.5% of the vote and almost toppled the sitting Republican Senator Pat Roberts. I’ve traveled to Kansas several times to speak on panels with Greg and to discuss the merits of the independent political movement, including his role in it. I’ve listened to him (most recently at the Unite America Summit in Denver) discuss the political paradigm shift underway that is unique to these postmodern times. (Postmodern is my word, not his. I’m from New York. He’s from Kansas.)
So, in watching and writing about this debate, I am neither a casual nor an uncommitted observer. I look for displays of strong independent leadership, and Orman delivered. When he lampooned Kelly over her support for Kobach’s election “reforms” (read: voter suppression) and slammed Kobach for not knowing how the agricultural economy works when Kobach called for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants, Orman demonstrated how deeply he understands both the centrality of expanding democracy and the myth-making that has permeated the national conversation about immigration.
The opportunistic charge circulating in some places that Orman is a spoiler is so outlandish that it’s hard to take seriously. His grasp of the issues and his commitment to a humane and growth-oriented public policy was readily apparent in that debate. The spoiler charge is a distraction. It is a rebuke to Orman for having the audacity to give the voters a meaningful alternative to the Democrat and Republican. And it is an insult to the people of Kansas who have the capacity to make up their own minds, to make their own choices, and to accept the results of a fair election, whatever they might be.
Far from being a spoiler, Orman’s candidacy is a sign of political growth. It is both product and propellant of the changing state of politics in America. That change points in the direction of political independence, unconventional coalitions, fiscal prudence and an engaged humanitarianism which is not owned lock, stock and barrel by the liberal elite who have insisted that they, and they alone, are the people who care.
Orman is an important figure in the national independent movement. For one thing, he is the highest-profile statewide independent candidate with what could be the best chance of winning. (Other than Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who is an independent running for re-election.)
For another, he is remarkably non-sectarian and has freely associated himself with a broad array of independent forces within the movement, while carving out the space and voice that works for him. This is good for Orman, as this flies in the face of the ultra-sectarianism and partisanship that has dominated so much of the “third party” movement. This sectarianism is one of the reasons that minor parties don’t grow into major parties.
The independent movement is struggling with many issues at this juncture. Some seem to want a unified theory of political change against which they can measure the return on investment. I’m not sure there is a unified theory. And I’m not inclined to think we need one. We would do better to cultivate and experiment with a wide range of reforms, candidates, and partnerships.
As long as we keep facing the American public, in all its diversity, and building on the ground, we will grow. This is not a time to know the answers. It’s a time to empower the people to create them.
The major parties want this movement subdued, even as they try to figure out how to grab the lion’s share of the 44% of the country who call themselves independents. The media is obsessed with the palace intrigue in Washington and cares little or nothing for the distress of ordinary Americans. And in seemingly unlikely places, like Kansas, the ground is shifting. Keep an eye on Orman. And keep an eye on the movement that is lifting him up.