The Orman for Senate campaign headquarters is in a Shawnee, Kan., strip mall, next door to a Taekwondo studio and a few doors down from a Papa John’s pizza joint.
Among the posters, bumper stickers and general flotsam of a fall campaign, a college yearbook sits on a small table.
Princeton, Class of 1991, open to a page with a black-and-white photo of one Gregory Orman of Mankato, Minnesota, all suit-and-tie and toothy smile. Although Orman lists the College Republicans as one of his extra curriculars, the quote Orman chose to accompany his yearbook picture is from Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate of the 1990s. It's about Perot's belief that Americans have inherited great wealth but have taken it for granted.
“If this is going to be a country that’s owned by its people then the owners have got to become active in the management of the country,” the quote reads. “It’s that simple. The wimps are us.”
Orman, the Independent candidate taking on GOP incumbent Pat Roberts, is now being compared to the Independent candidate he admired. Less than a month before the November election, Orman is leading in most polls and has trained the national spotlight on a state that rarely gets it.
“Ross Perot is actually a politician who really, I think, hit a lot of buttons that spoke to me,” Orman tells KCUR.
“He talked about balancing our budget as a country. He talked about the need for Congressional reform. He talked about simplifying our tax code so the average American could pay their taxes on a postcard.”
Although he briefly ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2008, Orman is now banging the drum of an Independent, running against the partisan gridlock of Washington even more than he’s running against Roberts.
If a candidate wants to win the ruby-red State of Kansas, he must appeal to centrist Republicans and Independents, says Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas assistant political science professor who specializes in polls. Surveys this year find that those two voter groups don’t like Roberts, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, President Obama or politics in general, Miller says.
“So they’re kind of a pox on both parties and the process,” Miller says. “And so that Orman's message of, ‘I’ve left the Democratic Party, I want to be outside the party system, I want to reform the system’ -- it resonates with them, kind of like Ross Perot’s message did for voters back in ’92.”
As a registered Independent, Christy McCulloch of Olathe is one of those voters. She didn’t sign up for either party because they are too divisive, she says, and to identify with one is to be discounted by the other.
McCulloch is volunteering for Orman’s campaign, she says, because he shares her concerns.
“I think that Kansas is in trouble and we need change,” she says. “From what I’ve read about Greg, I believe that he could be the one to change things. What he said really spoke to me.”
Orman seems to understand this, playing up his disdain for the two parties and their leaders. He’s said if elected, he wouldn’t vote for either Democrat Harry Reid or Republican Mitch McConnell for Senate Majority leader, as they are too partisan. Leadership should be found in the women’s caucus, Orman has said.
“As an independent, I can go to Washington and be a true problem-solver, not a partisan. I can embrace the best ideas wherever they come from to move our country forward,” Orman says. “I think too often with the partisan labels, we spend too much time talking about the messenger and not enough time listening to the message.”
Orman’s message is this: He’s fiscally responsible and socially tolerant. No, he wouldn’t have voted for Obamacare, but he also won’t vote to repeal it. Yes, he supports immigration reform because the agricultural industry in Kansas needs workers.
Orman was raised in Minnesota by a single mother. He spent his summers working for his father's furniture store in Stanley, Kan., where he says he got his successful business training.
After graduation, Orman started his own company, Environmental Lighting Concepts; he later sold most of it to Kansas City Power & Light. Since then, Orman has grown wealthy by investing in other businesses. He’s worth between $20 million and $86 million.
His wife, Sybil, a teacher who has taken a break from doctoral studies at the University of Kansas, recently told a group of volunteers at the Shawnee headquarters that her husband feels he’s lived the American Dream.
“He’s felt that it was his goal and his responsibility to give back so that he could help provide for other people the same opportunities so that they could live their own version of the American Dream,” she said.
But Orman’s business career has not been all dreamy, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out. He has also taken heat over his support for Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs board member convicted of securities fraud and fined $18 million, as the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
“Now news reports show Orman has shady business ties to Rajat Gupta, one of Wall Street’s most notorious criminals,” says a Roberts ad.
Roberts is also trying to label Orman as the real Democrat in the race. It was party members such as U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri who helped orchestrate Democratic candidate Chad Taylor's withdrawal from the race last month.
That doesn’t seem to matter to Elizabeth Schmitz of Shawnee, who was also at the recent sign-up night for Orman volunteers. She grew up Democrat but is now a registered Republican. She says she was inspired to work for Orman after watching the recent PBS documentary The Roosevelts.
“We talk a lot about how our divided our country is and how bipartisan it is. And in the documentary, they were talking about the exact same things,” she says. “And Eleanor Roosevelt kept saying, ‘If we aren’t all doing well, none of us are doing well.’ And I really felt like I couldn’t complain about things if I wasn’t helping.”
But even as Schmitz was talking about bipartisanship outside Orman’s headquarters, a partisan battle was going on out in the parking lot.
An opposition researcher from “America Rising,” a conservative political action committee, was taking pictures of volunteers’ cars. He was trying to find Obama bumper stickers, he told KCUR, so he could link Orman with the Democrats for a campaign ad. He would not give his name.
Read or listen to Peggy Lowe's report on GOP incumbent Pat Roberts by clicking here.