Why I Remained an Independent Candidate
This past year I ran for governor of Kansas as an independent. As we’re living through yet another government shutdown, I can’t think of a better backdrop to explain one of the decisions I made in that campaign that perplexed many.
First, a little background. The two major political parties had offered up sharply contrasting candidates. The Republican nominee, Kris Kobach, was Kansas’s incumbent secretary of state. He had a national reputation for being anti-immigrant and had led a nationwide effort aimed at suppressing the votes of people who disagreed with him politically. He was an ardent supporter of President Trump and wanted to return Kansas to a failed experiment in supply-side economics. His criticism of his Republican predecessor was that he failed to cut spending deeply enough to make the plan work. Kobach occasionally campaigned in a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back.
The Democratic nominee, Laura Kelly, was as measured and calm as secretary Kobach was inflammatory. A four-term, moderate state senator from Topeka, she vowed to return the state to a time when Republicans and Democrats worked together – a more civil period in our history, but also a time when Kansas began its steep decline. She only really got animated when talking about ending the failed Brownback tax experiment “once and for all.” This was an act the legislature had already taken the year prior.
Over the last eight weeks of the campaign, the calls for me to drop out of the race and support Sen. Kelly grew louder. The concern of her supporters was that I would split the “anti-Kobach” vote, allowing him to slip into office and return state government to discredited and divisive policies of the recent past. Of course, painting an independent as a spoiler is always what Democrats or Republicans say when a credible candidate dares to challenge the established duopoly. In the waning days of my campaign, as the polls showed me with virtually no path to victory and time running out, even some of my core supporters joined the chorus of political pundits who believed I could help manufacture a “less bad” outcome.
I elected to stay the course. While I disagreed with the assessment of how my candidacy was affecting the race, that’s not the reason I chose to ignore the pleas from so many. To be clear, there was more than one reason I didn’t bow to the pressure. The most important reason, however, can best be described by sharing a conversation I had with a friend who is a Democrat donor.
In his mind, had I dropped out of the race and endorsed Laura Kelly, I would have been a hero – and positioned myself to run for any office I desired in the future. Kansans would be so grateful that they dodged the .50-caliber Kobach bullet that they would reward me the next time my name was on a ballot.
I answered him with a question: “What is the most critical issue facing our nation?” To him, it’s climate change. So, I asked a follow-up: “What if I were to tell you that you could become president of the United States if you agreed to become a climate change denier in word and in deed?” After thinking for a moment, he said, “I wouldn’t do it.”
I believe the most important issue facing our nation is a dysfunctional two-party system that values self-preservation over everything else and is allowing the greatness of our country to slip away. It’s preventing meaningful progress on so many issues that I care deeply about, including climate change, but also our burgeoning national debt, immigration policy, income inequality, and wage stagnation, to name a few. It’s allowing our health care system to consume our economy while delivering uneven results to our citizens. It’s shoveling $30 billion a year in subsidies in the form of inflated prices to the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of American people battling illnesses. On the most divisive issues facing our nation, guns and abortion, our two-party system exacerbates our divisions instead of trying to bridge them.
It's a system set up to perpetuate itself, one that places the needs of the parties themselves and the special interests above the interests of Americans. As a result, parties have become nothing more than aggregation points for special interests that are engaged in a never-ending war. The American people are the casualties.
Because I believe the most important issue facing us as Americans is our destructive and self-perpetuating two-party system, I was not willing to join it in the service of personal advancement – the same way my friend wouldn’t become a climate change denier.
This wasn’t the first time I was presented with the opportunity to join the two-party system to get elected. In 2014, when running for a United States Senate seat, I was counseled to signal to voters with a wink and a nod that although I was running as an independent, if elected, I’d be a de facto Republican once I got to Washington. After the election, Bob Dole told me, “If you would have said you were going to be a Republican, you’d be in the U.S. Senate right now.”
I know that many of the people giving me that advice –in 2014 and in 2018 – were sincere. They were also correct, if you assume the riddle I was trying to solve was: “How do I get myself elected to public office?” But I was trying to answer a different question: “How do I have a sustainable, positive impact on the lives of Americans?” When I asked Sen. Dole if I would be accomplishing anything as yet another Republican senator from a red state, he replied candidly, “No, you wouldn’t.”
I’d rather play golf.
Some will argue that the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is different from what we’re experiencing in Kansas. My answer to that is: give it time. Kansas is merely behind the curve when it comes to dysfunction. The evidence is not only present in the behavior of those in the state capitol but also in the trends that have affected the lives of Kansans for the past two decades. Many of the issues I listed above could be addressed, in part, by state governments. Kansas has seen eroding state finances, stagnant wages, an uneven criminal justice and social services system, and declining health outcomes for two decades – a period during which a moderate Republican, two Democrats, and conservative Republican have all occupied the governor’s office. Moreover, we Kansans are not immune from the disease of dysfunction and incivility that characterize national politics; nor do the corrupting effects of special interests on the nation’s two major political parties stop at our state’s borders.
It’s easy to be distracted from what’s truly important in today’s political culture. The two dominant parties govern in ways that allow them to settle old scores and perpetuate problems to rile up their bases. Their currency is hate and fear. They have conditioned the electorate to define themselves in opposition to one another instead of in support an ideal. As a result, many have forgotten what it means to be an American. In this environment, politicians no longer ask for your service or your sacrifice. They simply ask your price.
They’ve created a present so unsettling that we’re unable to contemplate the future. And it’s a future that will only create more disruption. A combination of automation, trade, and off-shoring have left so many Americans behind over the last two decades. But we need to understand we are at the beginning of a technological revolution, not the end of it. If we don’t fundamentally alter our political system and get government back into the business of solving problems, the very existence of the middle class is at risk.
So, I’m not willing to support a system that I believe is letting the American people down.
I hope I’m mistaken. But hope isn’t a strategy. Until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to continue fighting for what I believe in – a nation where we put our country ahead of a political party and restore the American dream for every American who is willing to work to achieve it.