Kansas independent Orman campaigns under the radar

AP News
Posted: Oct 21, 2014 9:34 PM
Kansas independent Orman campaigns under the radar

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Greg Orman has had barely a month to introduce himself to Kansas voters since unusual events thrust him into a neck-and-neck competition with three-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Yet the independent candidate's schedule of public campaign appearances has usually ranged from slim to none.

Rather than hold rallies and give speeches to make himself better known, Orman has campaigned mostly under the radar at small invitation-only events and on social media. This week is the rare exception, with a planned press conference and talk at the University of Kansas.

In a race with an embattled incumbent, he's gambling that less information about himself is generally better than more.

"I think his decision to stay away from more traditional events and focus on paid media and select events is unusual for first-time candidates," said veteran Democratic consultant Tad Devine. "They need publicity so voters get the chance to know them."

But for Orman, whose chances surged when the Democratic candidate suddenly dropped out of the race, mystery has its advantages, several strategists said.

"I would want this election to be about the incumbent," said Mitch Stewart, former adviser to Barack Obama. "One way to accomplish that is by not making waves."

"Orman is running a masterful campaign," said Mark McKinnon, a former top adviser to Republican George W. Bush.

Until recently, Orman, 45, was known mostly in Kansas City business circles for having turned an energy-efficient lighting business into a division of the local electric utility and for building an investment firm that made him a multimillionaire. His only venture into politics was a brief look at a Senate bid as a Democrat in 2008.

When he launched his independent campaign this year, he was one of four possible options to Roberts, 78, who was being criticized for being out of touch with Kansas after four decades in Washington.

Now that Orman is running even with Roberts in the polls, what Kansas voters see of him is mostly television ads showing a trim, youthful man in shirt sleeves chatting with workers in warehouses or other job sites. Similar images adorn his mailings and his campaign's Instagram and Twitter accounts. He portrays himself as disinterested in partisan politics and devoted to using his business expertise to create jobs and improve the state's quality of life.

"I have actually always been independent-minded, fiscally conservative, socially tolerant, but more focused on solving problems," Orman said earlier this month.

But seeing Orman in person is usually somewhat akin to running into a movie star at the grocery store. When Orman goes somewhere or meets with a group, his staff usually makes arrangements quietly with only those involved. You probably won't see him on the TV news campaigning because the media often doesn't know where he is.

For example, last week, at the invitation of a supporter in Ellsworth, a community of 3,000 people, he met with about 20 invited voters at an antique mall. No one else knew he was coming.

"I did not know, no," said Mayor John Whitmer.

Not coincidentally, no video "tracker" from the opposition was around to record any possible misplaced words, or big city reporters who might ask questions.

A week earlier, he met voters privately in supporters' homes, Orman aides said. Monday, Orman's wife, Sybil, appeared at a rally in a mall parking lot in Olathe.

"That was pretty short notice," said retired teacher John Ryan, a supporter in Overland Park who got a call inviting him a few hours earlier.

Orman's aides, who prefer to speak anonymously about campaign arrangements, have noted proudly the interview requests the candidate has turned down.

Meanwhile, Roberts is trying to go everywhere to show he hasn't forgotten his home state, even if he didn't visit much in recent years and doesn't own a home there. He has held rallies with big-name Republicans such as Bob Dole and John McCain. He presents himself as a reliable conservative who still represents rural values.

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Last week, Roberts visited 13 towns on a bus tour. This week's schedule has him headed back to the plains of western Kansas, a bastion of conservative votes, for ice cream socials, rallies at popular steak joints and visits to old train stations.

The strain sometimes shows in the face of the balding, slightly stooped Roberts. And he's angry about his opponent's remote presence. "He wants to run out the clock," Roberts said. "He doesn't want to answer the tough questions."

The few unscripted views of Orman have come at the candidates' three debates, in which he fended off questions about whether he would caucus with Republicans or Democrats in the Senate if elected, but discussed economic and social policies.

Orman is hoping to gather enough votes from Democrats, independents and disgruntled Republicans to overcome Roberts' natural GOP brand advantage in Kansas.

Some voters say their decisions will be based more on their view of Roberts than the new hopeful.

"I don't have as strong a sense of Greg Orman, but you don't see him spending his time on negative accounts of his opponent," said Dr. William Byrd, an Overland Park Republican, referring to recent ads portraying Orman as a secret liberal.

Gary Schrag, a Republican voter from Overland Park, said the election boils down to stability vs. change.

"Sen. Roberts assumes that all of us would be horrified with someone different," said Schrag, a retired minister.