For an increasing number of voters, choosing between red and blue feels like no choice.
Elections in Kansas this year could serve as a proving ground for a fed-up electorate made up of folks who might be disgusted enough to form a new political party.
That possibility drives Scott Morgan to travel the state in search of converts to his Party of the Center, what he calls “a safe and sane alternative to the craziness” of the Republicans and Democrats.
Distinctively, candidates of the new party wouldn’t need to agree much with each other about the issues that typically distinguish Republicans from Democrats — just hold a common desire to break from the way politics works now.
Morgan, once an aide to Kansas political heavyweights former U.S. Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, insists he didn’t leave the party. He thinks it left him.
That became inescapably clear, he said, during his 2014 primary campaign against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Morgan said he often was the only one at GOP campaign events who didn’t strictly adhere to the party’s anti-abortion, anti-tax and pro-gun tenets.
“If you don’t cross yourself on those issues,” he said, “you have no place in the Republican Party.”
Morgan blames low turnout in primary elections — typically under 20 percent — for surrendering control of both major parties to what he calls “fringe voters.”
Speaking recently to about a dozen people at a petition-signing party in Lawrence, Morgan said busy-but-engaged Kansans “who aren’t zealots” are his target demographic.
That includes people such as Amy Stevens. She’s a former Democrat from the East Coast who, after moving to Kansas, married into a family of moderate Republicans.
“It’s a really interesting idea, being that we’re in the geographic center of the United States, to have a party called the Party of the Center,” Stevens said. “It could be very exciting if it took off.”
That’s a big “if,” said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller, noting that even frustrated voters typically have partisan leanings.
“Most voters in Kansas and elsewhere in America are quite attached to their party,” Miller said.
Besides, he said, history shows that third parties need a charismatic leader, a powerful cause or both to play a meaningful role in elections.
Actually, Morgan said, that’s been the problem with third parties of the past. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and Ross Perot’s Reform Party quickly withered away because their fate was tied too tightly to outsized personalities.
“Early on, a decision was made that this had to be grassroots,” Morgan said of his initiative. “We didn’t want personalities driving it.”
Greg Orman, the independent candidate for Kansas governor, also believes sustainability is a problem but argues that personality-driven campaigns can help build something that lasts.
“We need to do both,” Orman said. “Run great candidates so that we can inspire people” while also building the infrastructure “so that other candidates can run and be successful.”
Still, Orman’s previous run for statewide office reinforces Miller’s point about the obstacles faced by independent and third-party candidates.
In 2014, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kansas dropped out. That set up a head-to-head contest between Orman, running as an independent, and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Orman mounted a strong challenge, but Roberts won going away.
In reliably red Kansas, Miller said, a three-way race for governor would “guarantee” a Republican win.
Normally, that would probably be true, said former Republican state Sen. Tim Owens, a member of Orman’s campaign team. But, he said, these are not normal political times.
“It’s something that historically has been a tough thing,” said Owens, a moderate Republican who lost his Senate seat in the conservative wave election of 2012. “But if there was ever a right time, it’s now.”
A 2017 CNN poll found that nearly six in 10 Americans were dissatisfied with both major parties. The rate of dissatisfaction among independents was even higher at seven in 10.
Orman’s campaign is in the process of collecting the 5,000 signatures he needs from registered Kansas voters to get on the general election ballot.
Morgan faces a more daunting task. He must gather 18,000 signatures by June 1 to register the Party of the Center with the secretary of state’s office. But he’s getting help from the Serve America Movement, a nonprofit organization based in Denver that’s helping to establish new parties in several states with a goal of eventually combining them.
“We want to build a new party for a new majority from the ground up,” said Sarah Lenti, the group’s director.
If Morgan gathers the necessary signatures to get on the ballot, he and other party organizers will recruit a “diverse” slate of candidates for Kansas House races and at least one statewide office. Those candidates, he said, won’t run on a party platform. They’ll simply run as Kansans committed to finding “workable solutions to move [Kansas] forward.”
“Our party is intentionally less about ideology and more about process,” Morgan wrote on the party’s website.
He said while party members will have strongly held beliefs, they must buy into the notion that compromise is essential to a “functioning government.”
“The difficulty of supporting the Party of the Center philosophy is not that you don’t stand for anything, but rather you must be able to understand that every other person views the world differently than you,” he wrote. “Community means living with people other than yourself and working together to make each of us stronger.”
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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