Will Democrats Block This Independent's Bid for Kansas Governor?

by | August 21, 2018

By Jonathan Shorman And Bryan Lowry

A Democratic objection to independent Greg Orman's candidacy for Kansas governor says more than 6,000 signatures used to help secure his place on the November general election ballot should be thrown out.

A successful objection blocking Orman's candidacy would upend the race for governor and arguably improve Democratic nominee Laura Kelly's prospects in the race. The Orman campaign called the filing frivolous.

Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, will be competing with Orman for unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a nearly 2 to 1 ratio. Democrats have warned for months that Orman's candidacy will split votes and benefit the GOP nominee, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Kelly's campaign declined to comment on the objection to Orman's signatures, which was filed by the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, one of her closest allies in the Legislature.

The objection alleges that one petition circulator who recorded more than 1,000 signatures over seven days would have had to collect a signature every 4.5 minutes for 11-hours each day in order to accomplish the task.

"That statistic casts serious doubt as to the validity of his signatures, even more so when you consider that his petitions included signatures from 20 different counties during that time span," said Pedro Irigonegaray, an attorney for Will Lawrence, who filed the objection.

Orman campaign spokesman Sam Edelen called the filing a desperate effort to avoid electoral accountability.

"This frivolous filing by the lawyer for the Kansas Democratic Party simply shows the lengths to which the supporters of the failed system will go," Edelen said. "They want to avoid giving voters a real choice at all costs."

Lawrence's objection also says several counties failed to validate signatures by a legal deadline -- a loss of more than 6,000 signatures if the objection is upheld. The objection says that several petition circulators were not qualified under state law to circulate petitions for Orman.

In addition, the objection suggests that notaries public were notarizing petition pages without personally witnessing the signature of the petition circulator.

Irigonegaray wrote in a letter that "a substantial number of the notary dates on these signature pages appear to be the same, regardless of the dates the signatures were collected."

Irigonegaray was one of the lawyers who defeated Kobach in court four years ago when the Kansas Supreme Court agreed to remove Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, from the ballot. The decision enabled Orman to run a head-to-head race against U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the incumbent Republican.

The objection came after the Kansas secretary of state's office said Friday it had found more than 7,000 valid signatures on Orman' petition and placed him on the November general election ballot. Orman has said he turned in more than 10,300 signatures.

Democrats had previously signaled they planned to formally fight Orman's placement on the ballot. Lawrence earlier said some signatures appeared to be collected by individuals convicted of felonies. Kansas law requires signature gatherers to be eligible to register to vote.

Orman said in an interview Friday that he recognized there will be challenges to his petition.

"I have every confidence based on the process that we went through that we're going to have well more than the 5,000 signatures required to be on the ballot in November," Orman said.

Bryan Caskey, the Kansas director of elections, confirmed that the secretary of state's office had received the petition.

He said this would trigger a meeting of the State Objections Board, a panel which includes Kobach, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann.

"We are in the process of scheduling that and alerting all the candidates," Caskey said.

Kobach, who narrowly won the GOP nomination for governor, said last week that his decision to recuse himself from the counting of votes in the primary also extended into the review of Orman's signatures. He said he had not physically visited the elections division at the secretary of state's office since his recusal.

"I'm leaving all of those decisions in their hands. I'm staying out of it," Kobach said Thursday, the day before his office certified Orman's signatures.

Caskey said Monday he had not discussed with Kobach about whether the recusal would also extend to his role on the State Objections Board. Kobach has had deputies serve in his stead in the past in situations where there was a potential conflict of interest.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said a successful Democratic effort to remove Orman from the ballot would recalibrate the governor's race.

"It would be a blast of dynamite for this governor's race. If he were off the ballot, it would just blow it up," Beatty said. "It would make it a much more straightforward race between the Democrat and the Republican."

Beatty noted that in a three-way race a candidate could capture the governor's office with 34 percent of the vote.

"Getting 35 percent vs. 51 percent makes a giant difference in how you run a campaign," he said.

Contributing: The Kansas City Star's Hunter Woodall

(c)2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)