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In Kansas Senate race, independent Greg Orman becomes a contender

Watch Greg Orman's ads for his independent Senate campaign, and it's clear he thinks one of his biggest political assets is the fact that he's neither a Democrat or Republican.

"I tried both parties, and like many Kansans I've been disappointed with both," Orman says in his latest ad, released Thursday. "As an independent, I won't answer to either party. I'll answer only to the people of Kansas. I'll stand up for the best idea, regardless of who thought of it."

Based on the sparse polling out of Kansas, voters may be buying his message. Independents rarely break through the two-party system that dominates American politics, but Orman seems to have a relatively competitive race against longtime Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, now that the Democrat on the ballot, Chad Taylor, has dropped out.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court made the pivotal decision to take Taylor's name off the ballot.

When Taylor dropped out earlier this month, he shed little light on what motivated his decision.

"I have great love for the state of Kansas and the people that live here. I will continue work in their best interest every day, but effective today, my campaign is terminated," he said.

It was clear, though, that Orman was a stronger candidate than Taylor, giving the GOP reason to believe that the move was simply designed to make Roberts more vulnerable. A Fox News poll released earlier this week gives further evidence that Roberts -- who's served as a senator in the solid-red state since 1997 -- could lose to Orman with the Democrat off the ballot.

With Taylor in the mix, the Democrat received 11 percent support, the Fox poll showed, while Roberts won 40 percent and Orman garnered 38 percent support. With just Orman and and Roberts to choose from, voters chose the independent over the incumbent Republican, 48 to 42 percent. The poll, conducted Sept. 14-16, has a four-point margin of error.

Rob Richie, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit group FairVote, told CBS News that it's "kind of weird" that a major political party would pull its candidate from the ballot for the tactical purpose of upsetting the other major party.

"That to me indicates we have an electoral system that creates strange incentives," Richie said. A democracy should be "a contest of ideas and a full fledged debate," with electoral outcomes that reflect voters' preferences, he said. When one major party that purports to represent the views of a significant portion of voters pulls out of a race, it doesn't seem very democratic.

The occasional influence of third parties isn't too surprising, given that Americans say they are dissatisfied with the two-party system. Last year, amid the government shutdown, as many as 60 percent of Americans said the two major parties don't do a good job representing the public. According to Gallup, as many as 47 percent of Americans identify as independents.

Still, the two-party system has persisted as voters gravitate towards tolerable candidates that they think have a chance of beating the candidate they don't like. Voters, Richie said, are "not necessarily pro-one party, but against the other party."

At the same time, states are increasingly controlled by either Democrats or Republicans. One-party control exists in 46 states, the highest number since World War II.

"There are these contradictory, clashing realities where you have rising partisanship between Democrats and Republicans that makes states out of play for one party," he said. "But at the same time you have voters who don't feel they love the party they tend to vote for, and if a strong independent comes along, they'll be more likely to vote for them."

There are a handful of other statewide races around the country this year in which the presence of an independent candidate will make a difference.

In North Carolina, polls show a close race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, North Carolina House Speaker Thomas Tillis. The race has become one of the most expensive of the year, with outside groups pouring money into it. Still, the outcome could be thrown by quirky, perennial libertarian candidate Sean Haugh.

In South Dakota where Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is retiring, former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds is currently leading, but only with 43 percent support, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times estimate. He has a solid lead over Democrat Rick Weiland. Another poll reveals Rounds also leads the two independent candidates, former Sen. Larry Pressler and former state legislator Gordon Howie. Pressler, however, polls quite strongly in one poll, and if he were to cut short his campaign, the race would likely become much more competitive between the Democrat and Republican.

In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage is in a tight race against his Democratic challenger, Rep. Mike Michaud. Both candidates have a large lead over independent Eliot Cutler. As the Bangor Daily News noted, Cutler's supporters, who lean left, may feel pressured to give their support to Michaud to ensure that LePage doesn't win another term.

FairVote advocates for electoral reforms including "ranked choice voting," which would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference. With that kind of system, voters wouldn't have to worry about "throwing away" their vote on a third party.

Such reforms, Richie said, could also keep political parties from strategically deciding to "commit suicide" in order to see the other side lose, as happened in Kansas.

Taylor isn't the only Democrat this year to take his hat out of the running in a major race.

In Alaska earlier this month, Democrat Byron Mallott scrapped his campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in order to form an independent "unity" ticket with Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent.

Mallott was more straightforward than Taylor about his motivations: "I could see no way forward to win in a three-way race," he said.