Political independents continue to fascinate journalists. The Kansas City Star’s op-ed page recently included a piece by Greg Orman, Kansas’s independent 2014 candidate for the U.S. Senate, and one by Jacqueline Salit, of IndependentVoting.org. Orman’s continuing message is the mud wrestling of partisan politics needs an infusion of centrist independence, while Salit argues today’s apparent growing numbers of independents are somehow different from previous generations, when most independents actually had strong partisan leanings.
The lure of an independent, centrist candidacy and the fantasy of legions of thoughtful, independent voters are powerful storylines in a politics that has become increasingly coarse, tribal and allergic to facts.
Orman would have us believe that in a three-way 2018 race for governor, he could prevail over the two main party candidates. We do not know who the candidates are, but in this red state, a Republican gubernatorial candidate begins with approximately 40 percent of the vote. A Democrat with maybe 30 percent. Where does that leave an independent? In a deep hole.
In 2014, Orman ran a strong, well-funded Senate race and still lost to Pat Roberts, the weakest Republican incumbent in the country, by 11 percent in a two-way race. This year, with Democrats running strongly in the second and third congressional districts, and with their desire to maintain their 2016 state legislative gains, a Democratic gubernatorial nominee will have solid party backing. If the GOP nominee is Kris Kobach, any Democrat will have substantial additional support, much of it coming from outside the state.
Still, multiple reports suggest Orman will run for governor as an independent. Beyond the numbers, let me suggest how his Kansas-based reasoning is flawed. He writes, “The two major parties that run our country don’t seem to care. They are running their own version of professional wrestling: There’s lots of fighting, name calling and posturing, but nothing is really happening.” That’s a powerful assertion, and one that has creedence at the national level.
In Kansas, however, his analysis simply falls apart.
During the course of more than 40 years, through 2010, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans combined to provide reasonably responsive policies to the state across both Democratic and Republican regimes. Of course, there were partisan battles, but legislative majorities ordinarily provided consistent governance.
In 2005, for example, under the gun of a Supreme Court school finance decision, the Legislature came together — not altogether happily — to respond to the court’s requirements. From 2011 through 2016, conservative Republicans ruled the roost, after the blowout 2010 election. Many Kansans disagreed with their policies, but there was no deadlock at all. Party government prevailed. The response to this far-right rule was to contest the 2016 elections — both primary and general — with vigor.
In the wake of the historic 2016 elections, the state moved back to moderate conservative governance, with Democrats, moderate Republicans and some conservatives providing the votes to readjust the state’s income tax policies. Again, there was tough politicking, but the Legislature resolved its issues.
Overall, the three parties of Kansas politics — conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats (mostly moderates) — have governed the state in line with their voters’ preferences. There has been tough campaigning, but also notable accomplishments, from both sides of the aisle.
In short, Orman’s ambition has clouded his analysis and judgment as to Kansas politics. Party politics, albeit of the three-party variety, has served the state well. The romantic ideal of an independent candidate simply ignores the fact the state’s parties historically have responded to the wishes of the electorate, usually ending up near the center.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.