WICHITA, Kan.—In 2000, a wealthy Kansas businessman named Greg Orman decided to write a book. It was going to be called Good Politics Is Bad Policy, and it would explain the distressing phenomenon he perceived—the misalignment of politicians' incentives with the country's needs.

Writing a book turned out to be even harder than making millions, and it was never published. But the problem Orman had diagnosed didn't get any better.

"We're still sending the worst of both parties to Washington—people who seem more interested in getting reelected than they do in solving problems," Orman, a tanned, youthful-looking 45-year-old with gelled-up dark hair, said on Wednesday. He was speaking in a windowless room at the top of a bank building in Wichita, to an audience of about 40 retired teachers on folding chairs. "They draw childish lines in the sand, they refuse to cooperate, and as a result, inaction has replaced leadership when it comes to solving our most pressing problems."

Orman, an independent candidate for Senate, suddenly became the most intriguing person in politics last week, when a court allowed the Democratic candidate to withdraw from the ballot, making Orman the principal opponent of Republican Senator Pat Roberts. This development, in a race nobody expected to be competitive, has shoved into the spotlight an unknown candidate whose pitch against partisanship resonates with a conflict-weary electorate.

"Greg Orman has grabbed this race by the throat," said Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, noting that Orman leads Roberts in several recent polls. "You just have the sense—I see it every time I talk to people—that politics is broken. When someone reinforces that, saying, 'Yes, both parties are the problem,' that really resonates with people right now."

Control of the Senate could hinge on this unlikely contest between an insistently nonpartisan, Ivy League-educated former consultant and a Republican incumbent who's spent 33 years in Washington. If elected, Orman says he would caucus with whichever party has the majority. But if there are 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, he would play tiebreaker: Joining the GOP would give them 51 votes; joining Democrats would give them 50 votes plus the vice president. In that case, Orman says, he would ask both parties to commit to issues like immigration and tax reform, and join the one that agreed. "We're going to work with the party that's willing to solve our country's problems," Orman said in an interview.

Almost every ballot has an independent or third-party candidate who blames the two major parties for America's problems. Most of them are flakes or gadflies who go unnoticed. But Orman has money, he's run a smart campaign, and he seems to be in the right place at the right time. A weak Republican incumbent, a Democrat willing to get out of the way, and a state whose Republican majority has been badly split by years of toxic intraparty battles—all these factors have made Kansas uniquely receptive to Orman's message.

Most of the teachers in Wichita were Democrats, but not Jim Unruh, a 73-year-old Republican who'd come with his wife. Unruh owns an auto-repair business, and his brother is a Republican county commissioner, but he'd decided to support Orman. He told me he had three candidates' signs in his yard: Paul Davis, the Democrat challenging Governor Sam Brownback; Jean Schodorf, the Democrat for secretary of state; and Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, a Tea Party-aligned conservative. "I think those people can get something done," he said. "The road we're going down right now is a washout."

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Senator Pat Roberts, left, and Greg Orman meet in their first debate. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

You can buy a lot of television ads for a million dollars in Kansas, and that's what Greg Orman did.

The ads played all over the state starting in July. Two teams of men—one in red shirts, one in blue—stand in a muddy field, pulling in opposite directions on a thick rope. As they grunt and strain, going nowhere, a clean-shaven man in jeans, sitting on a set of bleachers, says, "Washington's stuck between two parties who care more about winning than they care about our country." The screen reads "Greg Orman, businessman."

The ads began airing in the thick of an ugly Republican primary, competing for airtime with volleys of attacks by Roberts and his right-wing challenger, Milton Wolf. Orman's plea for cooperation was a refreshing contrast with all the negativity.

Roberts scraped through the early August primary by just 7 percentage points. His longtime campaign manager then announced that he would go home—to Virginia—to rest. (Roberts's residence had been an issue in the primary, when The New York Times revealed that his official home in Dodge City was a friend's house where he sometimes stayed, and he told a radio interviewer, "Every time I get an opponent—I mean, every time I get a chance, I'm home.")

Having won the primary, Roberts clearly believed the campaign was effectively over. His ads stopped airing—but Orman's didn't. And then Orman started to break through. A poll in late August showed the independent taking 20 percent of the vote; Democrat Chad Taylor had 32 percent, and Roberts had 37 percent. Another poll asked who voters would choose between Orman and Roberts. Orman led by 10 points.

On September 3, Taylor formally asked to be removed from the ballot. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican known for his partisan crusades against voter fraud and illegal immigration, tried to reject the request but was overruled by the state supreme court. National Republicans suddenly saw they had a situation on their hands. Behind closed doors, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, gave Roberts an earful. Roberts fired his campaign manager and brought in a new team of D.C. professionals.

The new team was basically starting from scratch, six weeks before Election Day. The new campaign manager was hired two days before the first debate. New campaign ads had to be made; yard signs had to be ordered. The GOP cavalry was called in: Roberts campaigned this week with Bob Dole, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and will be reinforced in the coming weeks by Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Paul Ryan. The zero-to-60 campaign's most pressing task: to figure out who Greg Orman was and try to convince voters he wasn't what he seemed.

Orman grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, the second oldest of six children raised principally by his mother, a registered nurse. He spent summers in Stanley, Kansas, working at his father's furniture store, and decided from an early age he wanted to be a businessman too. His mother was a Democrat, his father a Republican; Greg admired Ronald Reagan and, as a member of the Princeton College Republicans, volunteered for George H.W. Bush in 1988. But in the next election, he warmed to the independent message of Ross Perot, and in his senior yearbook, he chose a Perot quote to accompany his picture.

By 2007, Orman  had become disillusioned with the Republican Party of George W. Bush. He formed an exploratory committee to run as a Democrat against Roberts, but abandoned it before becoming an official candidate. Over the years, he has donated to Democratic candidates including Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But he's also given to Republicans Scott Brown and Todd Akin, as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee. He says he voted for Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

In 2010, Orman founded a centrist group called the Common Sense Coalition, and in 2012 he donated $25,000 to the independent-boosting project Americans Elect. Despite raising millions and securing ballot access in several states, Americans Elect imploded before the election, announcing that it could not find a candidate to carry its mantle.

Orman's hopes for a political breakthrough were coming to naught, but his business career was thriving. After college, while working for the consulting giant McKinsey & Co., he started a company that designed and installed energy-efficient lighting systems. It seemed like a win-win: He could make a profit, save businesses money, and help the environment, all at the same time.

By 1996, Environmental Lighting Concepts had expanded to four states, and Kansas City Power and Light, the statewide utility, offered to buy it. Orman ran it for six more years, growing it from a $100 million to a $1 billion enterprise, then leaving in 2002. Since then, he says he's invested in 15 companies, including a Lenexa, Kansas, boxing-equipment manufacturer that he brought out of receivership, saving 50 jobs in the process. The company, renamed Combat Brands, is also the subject of a $30 million trademark lawsuit brought by Everlast. Orman says the lawsuit is baseless.

The Combat Brands story illustrates the double-edged sword of Orman's business career: While he presents it as an uplifting story of creating jobs, Roberts's campaign points to the lawsuit as evidence of shady dealings. Orman also has an extensive business and personal relationship with Rajat Gupta, a former McKinsey executive currently serving a two-year federal-prison sentence for insider trading. Orman once served as Gupta's representative on the board of a Cayman Islands-based, billion-dollar hedge fund called New Silk Route. Orman and Gupta remain partners in a firm called Exemplar Wealth management. Orman testified before the grand-jury proceeding that led to Gupta's indictment and was listed as a defense witness at Gupta's trial, though he was not called to testify.

Orman insists he had no knowledge of his friend's misdeeds and that his own businesses are untainted. "He is a friend of mine, he made a huge mistake, and he's paying the price for it," Orman told me. "It shocked me like it shocked a lot of people when it came out that he was charged with those things."

Orman has impressive grasp of a broad range of topics and a knack for illustrating points with stories. The conservative columnist George Will declared this week that "the Senate’s intellectual voltage would be increased by Orman’s election." But what does he stand for?

When I interviewed him, his favorite phrase seemed to be "by the same token." Banks shouldn't be too big to fail, but by the same token, too many restrictions burden small lenders. The Affordable Care Act contained laudable insurance reforms, but by the same token, it didn't do enough to bring down health-care costs. Orman wouldn't say whether he would have voted for the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill or whether he favors a cap-and-trade pollution-control scheme. He laments the need for more highway-construction funding, but when I ask whether he'd raise the gas tax, he responds, "We haven't come out with a position on that yet."

Roberts contends that Orman is merely a Democrat in disguise. Noting that his positions on immigration, abortion, health care, and guns seemed to line up more with Democrats, I asked him if there were any issues where he lined up with Republicans. "I think we're spending a lot of time talking about what we need to do to live within our means and balance our budget," he said. "I think the immigration-reform position is the same immigration position as George Bush, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. That's a problem-solving approach, it's not a partisan approach." Orman also believes some government benefits, such as disability insurance, are being abused and promoting dependency, and says they should be reformed.

Orman's campaign believes that Roberts's attacks are only helping. Attacks on his business relationships only underscore his image as a self-made capitalist. Attacks on his supposed stealth partisanship are a perfect example of exactly the kind of partisan point-scoring he's set himself against.

When I asked Orman if he was trying to have it both ways, he retorted sharply, noting that Roberts had touted his work on the farm bill and for a new defense facility in Manhattan, Kansas, while voting against both. "If there's anyone trying to have it both ways, it's Senator Roberts, who's trying to persuade the voters of Kansas that he cares about them when he's voted against their interests consistently."

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Kansas Governor Sam Brownback with Pat Roberts (John Hanna/AP)

For decades, Kansas effectively had three political parties: Democrats, moderate Republicans, and conservatives. In the state legislature, Democrats and moderates combined to constitute a majority, an arrangement that allowed compromise legislation to prevail and the minority Democrats to have a disproportionate amount of power. When Republican Sam Brownback, a conservative former U.S. senator, was elected governor in 2010, this alliance helped stymie his plans to take the state in a boldly conservative new direction.

So Brownback went to war. In the 2012 election, he supported conservative primary challengers to the moderate lawmakers. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit backed by Charles and David Koch, dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the down-ballot elections. Nine of the moderates lost, and Brownback had his majority.

Brownback, who is thought to be contemplating a presidential run, pursued a conservative policy wish list including tough abortion restrictions, limits on unions, and cuts to welfare. "My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, 'See, we've got a different way, and it works,'" he told The Wall Street Journal last year. The centerpiece was a massive overhaul of the tax code that slashed income taxes on the theory that doing so would create growth. So far, however, the cuts have led to a massive budget shortfall, which Brownback has addressed by raiding transportation funds and hiking—temporarily, he says—the sales tax.

The ideological turn in the statehouse has upset status-quo-minded voters and provoked a backlash that is boosting the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, a state representative named Paul Davis. More than 100 Republicans, many of them elected officials ousted in Brownback's purge, have endorsed Davis, who leads in the polls by an average of 3 points. Another group of moderate former lawmakers, Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, has endorsed Orman.

I caught up to Brownback at a rally on Thursday with Texas Governor Rick Perry in a Wichita GOP office. Supporters wearing blue-and-yellow "I'm a Brownbacker" stickers packed the room, and Perry joked with Brownback about Texas and Kansas's competing job-creation records. After his speech, Brownback was asked whether his red-state experiment had been a failure. "Oh, it's working great," he insisted, noting that the state's population is growing and its unemployment rate is less than 5 percent. "We're bringing in a set of ideas that's long-term important to do."

Another potential casualty of the Kansas backlash is Kobach, the secretary of state. A Harvard- and Yale Law-educated former state GOP chairman, Kobach has been a lightning rod for the national left thanks to his work on controversial anti-immigration laws in Arizona and other states. (The New Republic recently called him "America's worst Republican.") Kobach's signature as secretary of state has been the pursuit of voter fraud. After sweeping changes to voting rules he pursued, including requiring proof of citizenship to vote, 20,000 voters have been disqualified, while a single case of voter fraud has been prosecuted.

"There are two extremes: People either hate him or they don't know him," says Kobach's opponent, Jean Schodorf—a former moderate Republican state senator who switched parties after she was forced out of office in 2010. In 2011, Schodorf voted for Kobach's changes based on his assurances that it would still be easy for legitimate voters to register; she feels she was betrayed.

"Republicans are mad," Schodorf told me. "All across this state, people say they are embarrassed with the present political leadership. They want to restore Kansas. They want people who care about the citizens, not one political party." Polls show Schodorf and Kobach neck-and-neck. Tying together Kobach, Brownback, and Roberts, Schodorf told me, "I believe we're going to sweep these three races because people want a change."

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Pat Roberts and Bob Dole (Charlie Riedel/AP)

In 2007, a tornado swept through the tiny town of Greensburg, Kansas, destroying 95 percent of the town and killing 11 people. Not even the museum attached to the world's largest hand-dug well was spared. Roberts and the rest of the Kansas delegation sprung into action, securing millions from the federal budget to help rebuild. "This is what happens when you pass an appropriations bill and get help for a community that's been completely wiped out," Roberts told me. "This community was on the receiving end of a Congress that acted quickly."

This is the sort of Republican Roberts used to be—a pragmatic conservative who worked to bring federal money back to his home state. But in the past couple of years, he has taken a sharp turn to the right. After helping to negotiate the most recent edition of the farm bill, Roberts, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, voted against it. (That hasn't stopped him from taking credit for it: "I saved crop insurance," he said on Tuesday, "and then I turned around and voted against the bill because I thought it was headed in the wrong direction.")

Similarly, after lobbying hard for a federal laboratory in Manhattan, Roberts voted against funding it. After that vote, The Kansas City Star noted, "Any doubts that Roberts has moved rapidly to the right ... can be laid to rest." (Roberts continues to take credit for that facility as well.)

Roberts campaigned in Greensburg on Tuesday with Dole, who remains a Kansas icon. In 2012, Dole came to the Senate to lobby for approval of a UN disability treaty. In a potent symbol of how the GOP has changed since Dole was majority leader, all but a few of his former colleagues—including Roberts—voted against it anyway, sending it down to defeat.

Dole, who remains witty and vigorous at 91, embarked in April on a valedictory tour of all 105 Kansas counties, for no other purpose than to say thank you to the voters who supported him for so many years. (He's now checked off more than 80.) On Tuesday, Roberts joined two of Dole's five stops in central Kansas. An aide carefully combed Dole's thin hair, then supported him as he walked into the senior center in Greensburg. A schedule posted on the wall read, "Wed: Dominos. Thurs: Falling Less. Tues: Welcome Bob Dole & Pat Roberts!!"

Kansans still feel a strong connection to Dole, out of office since 1996. Audience members raised their hands to tell emotional stories about times he'd helped them or asked him to sign pictures from decades ago. One thanked him for the "Bob Box" she'd received—a food-bank program for the elderly Dole started in 2012. Few had much to say to Roberts.

Propped on a cushion, speaking effortfully but with clarity, Dole reminisced about his career's ups and downs, telling a story about the importance of a big tent for the Republican Party. As majority leader in 1995, Dole was trying to pass a balanced-budget amendment. It failed by one vote when Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon voted with Democrats. It was the biggest disappointment of Dole's career.

"Some of my rambunctious Republican senators wanted to kick Hatfield out of the party," Dole recalled. "I said, 'Well, that doesn't make sense, because next week he'll probably vote with me and you'll vote against me.' If we start kicking everybody out of the party who has a different vote, there won't be many of us left."

Roberts's pitch focused on the importance of a GOP majority in the Senate. "There's only one issue, just one: Pat Roberts will be part of the Republican majority to stop Harry Reid, get him out of office, and stop the Obama agenda," Roberts said. "My opponent will not. He will vote for Harry Reid and business as usual."

In the audience, a solidly built young man with shaggy hair and sideburns under a ball cap rose to ask a question. "Senator Dole, you had a knack for working in a bipartisan environment and compromising to get something accomplished," he said. "What has changed in today's political situation where we don't make much progress and we get these stalemates?"

Dole answered as Roberts surely would have: "Well, I think the best thing we could do is have a Republican Senate and put Harry Reid aside," he said.

When the event was over, I approached the young man—Barrett Smith, a 26-year-old agricultural-extension agent and livestock and grain farmer—to ask what he'd thought of that answer.

"I think it's a lie," Smith said, pointing out that Dole had said the answer to too much partisanship was more partisanship. He revered Dole, and he didn't think Dole really believed that.

"I consider myself a moderate Republican, but I'll vote for the person who can lead us best," Smith said. He'd voted for Roberts before. This time, he was leaning toward voting for Orman.