In one of the most surprising races of the midterms, Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman running as an independent, has given Republican Sen. Pat Roberts a run for his money in the Senate race i n Kansas.
Yet Orman—who made his fortune in a diverse slew of investment ventures, including spinal-surgery screws—hasn't clearly defined himself, up to answering the increasingly important question of whether he'd caucus with Democrats or Republicans if he went to Washington. He has said he'd caucus with whichever party holds the majority, but if no clear majority emerges in the chamber, his vote could swing the balance.
But he's dodged questions about what he would do in that situation. He's vowed to change Washington, but hasn't expounded on how. Playing both sides of the fence on the Affordable Care Act, he has said he would've voted against the legislation while vacillating on whether he'd work to repeal it. And his stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline is undetermined: He's said he doesn't have enough information to decide either way.
Surprisingly, Orman's ambivalence hasn't hurt him—the latest polls show Kansans may be prepared to take a gamble on the newcomer rather than endure a fourth Roberts term. According to a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday, the candidates are neck and neck, with Roberts at 49 percent to Orman's 48 percent. In a survey with a 3.5 percentage point margin of error, the two are statistically tied.
Orman's campaign, which got a significant boost in August when Democratic nominee Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, centers on the well-worn idea that Washington is "broken" and "needs a change." He hammered both parties in one ad last week, blaming President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid along with Roberts and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the dysfunction in the Capitol, and billed his solution as "problem solving, not partisanship."
That could strike a chord with Kansas voters, a majority of whom, per a Marist poll, are unhappy with both Obama and the GOP. Adding more fuel to Orman's campaign fire, seven in 10 Kansans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. As an independent without clear allegiances, Orman can capitalize on frustration with both parties.
After a debate in Overland Park, Kan., on Wednesday, the candidate fielded questions from a group of reporters about his plans if he gets to Washington.
"If I get elected, and neither party is in the majority, then what I'm going to do is I'm going to sit down with both sides, propose a pro-problem-solving agenda, and ask both sides whether or not they're willing to support that agenda," Orman said. "And we're going to be likely to support the party that is likely to embrace a pro-problem-solving agenda."
The Washington Examiner's Byron York pressed Orman, asking whether he'd set up "an auction to award his support to the highest bidder."
"What I've said is we will go ahead and put forward a pro-problem-solving agenda," Orman responded. "And we will ask both parties whether or not they're willing to embrace that agenda."
In such a tight race, Orman's reticence to pick sides could turn the tide in his favor. It helps, too, that even though Roberts has been in the Senate for three terms and in Washington since 1981, Kansans don't really know their senior senator.
"The irony is, they can identify him but many people don't identify anything with him," Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told National Journal. "You go, 'OK, I know he's a senator, I guess, but I can't name two things that he's done.' And he's been there for a long time. So it's not just not knowing someone, but not seeing that he's made any difference."
Voters don't know Orman, either. And, so far, he isn't doing too much to make his positions any clearer. But that stands to help him in the race, where he can shape his own narrative as the fresh-faced, innovative problem-solver who rises above partisan politics.
This story was updated at 12:04 p.m. to include comments from Orman featured in the Washington Examiner.