TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas businessman running as an independent candidate has emerged as a possible kingmaker in the fierce national fight between Democrats and Republicans over control of the U.S. Senate, and that is exactly where Greg Orman wants to be.
In an odd twist, some Democrats pushed out their own candidate against three-term Sen. Pat Roberts to clear the way for Orman. Republicans said Thursday that the Democrat must remain on the ballot, hoping to split the anti-Roberts vote.
The maneuvering landed Orman, a 45-year-old co-founder of a business capital and management services firm from the conservative Kansas City suburb of Olathe, in the national spotlight.
A Democratic candidate in 2007 for the same Senate seat, Orman has been registered to vote with both major political parties in the past but is now unaffiliated. He pitches himself as a centrist who can break partisan gridlock — and promises to caucus with whichever party has the majority in the Senate after the November election.
He contributed to the 2008 presidential campaigns of Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but also to moderate Republican Scott Brown's campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2010 and conservative GOP Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, years before a comment from Akin about "legitimate rape" torpedoed his 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate.
"If I'm elected, there is a fair chance that neither party in Washington will have a majority," Orman said hours before the Democratic candidate withdrew from the race Wednesday. "If we get four or five months into this, and it's clear that the party that we've selected to be in the majority isn't walking the talk, isn't solving problems, isn't moving past partisanship, we can change our allegiance and caucus with the other party."
Orman's campaign declined a request for an interview Thursday, citing preparations for the fall campaign's first debate Saturday at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
Orman's sudden political fame stems from the vulnerability of 78-year-old Roberts after he won a difficult GOP primary against a tea party challenger with only 48 percent of the vote. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats to gain control of the Senate and needs Roberts to hold onto the seat.
Democrat Taylor, who trailed Orman in fundraising, announced Wednesday that he had "terminated" his campaign. But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican, ruled that Taylor would remain on the Nov. 4 ballot because he had failed to declare he would be unable to serve if elected. Taylor said he would challenge the decision. Kobach said that the Democrat would have to file a lawsuit.
Republicans enjoy a nearly 20 percentage-point voter registration advantage in Kansas and have won every U.S. Senate race since 1932. But GOP moderates remain a factor, and Democrats have won five of the last 10 governors' races.
Roberts' campaign said Taylor's withdrawal emerged from a "corrupt bargain" between Orman and Democratic leaders. Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the leader "had absolutely nothing to do with this."
But Democratic officials confirmed that Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri spoke to Taylor in recent days about abandoning his campaign. They spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they couldn't publicly discuss the private maneuvering.
Taylor's spokesman, Brandon Naylor, declined to comment on McCaskill's role.
Orman, the son of a furniture-store owner, has an economics degree from Princeton and formed Denali Partners in 2004, after selling off most of an energy-efficient lighting business to Kansas City Power & Light Co. and then working for the utility.
He's been registered as an unaffiliated voter since 2010, but was registered as a Republican in Kansas for four years starting in 1997. He was an unaffiliated voter after that, but registered as a Democrat in November 2007.
Orman ran for Roberts' seat as a Democrat in 2007 but dropped out early in 2008 over unspecified differences with supporters, saying "The compromises necessary to be elected were unacceptable." In 2010, he helped create the Common Sense Coalition, a nonprofit group describing itself as an advocate for "the sensible center."
He supports the right to abortion. On immigration, he says the U.S. must tighten its border security but it is impractical to deport millions of immigrants already in the country illegally.
Orman wants to review federal tax laws and says on his website, like some conservatives, that government "must stop picking winners and losers."
Greg Orman campaign: http://www.ormanforsenate.com/
Pat Roberts campaign: http://www.robertsforsenate.com
Chad Taylor campaign: http://taylorforussenate.com/
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington, D.C., contributed this report.