Senate races

Greg Orman, Kansas mystery businessman

LENEXA, Kan. — A passerby wouldn’t know from the dun-colored exterior of Combat Brands that this boxing goods warehouse has become a major punching bag in the Kansas Senate race.

{mosads}Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and his allies emphasize that the factory, owned by his independent challenger, Greg Orman, is the target of a $30 million breach-of-contract lawsuit. They have also pointed to Orman’s business relationship with Rajat Gupta, the former McKinsey senior partner, who’s serving prison time for insider trading.

It’s part of a broader Roberts narrative that Orman is a bad-faith actor trying to con voters into believing he is an independent while harboring secret allegiance to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

But Orman, a self-made businessman worth between $21.5 million and $86 million, has not tried to distance himself from Combat, which manufactures and sells boxing gloves, heavy bags, championship belts. In fact, he’s touting his role in saving it from bankruptcy and keeping 45 Kansans employed.

While Roberts has sought to nationalize the race as one that could decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate next year, Orman embraces former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous mantra, “All politics is local.”

Orman shunned national reporters from Washington who traveled to Kansas this week to write profiles. His campaign explained it didn’t want a pack of national press reporters turning his schedule into a media circus.

Instead, he conducted daily interviews with local television and radio stations and print reporters. Unafraid to boast of Combat Brands, he also invites reporters to tour the warehouse and holds on-camera interviews there.

His campaign argues that Everlast, a foreign-owned giant in the boxing industry, filed a frivolous lawsuit to run its Kansas-based rival out of business, which would allow it to purchase bankruptcy assets cheaply.

One of those employees grateful for Orman’s actions is Albert Guardado, a former flyweight boxer, who’s worked at Combat Brands for 15 years.

“He saved a lot of people who wouldn’t have had jobs,” Guardado said of Orman.

Guardado said the business became “much better run” after Orman bought a stake between $1 million and $5 million.

Orman has done everything he can to erase the partisan lines that define every other Senate race in the country. That means talking about his business background and how it could help Kansas.

“I’m the only candidate on this stage who’s created a private sector job, who’s had to deal with increasing government regulations, who knows what the burdens of runaway healthcare costs are doing to small businesses and who understands the challenges of running a business and solving problems day in and day out,” he said at a candidates’ forum Wednesday.

He bills himself as a nonpartisan problem-solver running against Washington dysfunction and the entrenched partisan interests he says lie at its root.

In an interview with a local television station, he called the automatic spending cuts yielded by the lack of a broader federal deficit deal “the greatest example of what’s wrong with Washington today.”

His message is in tune with many voters disenchanted with gridlock in Washington.

No Labels, a group of Democrats and Republicans dedicated to a “new politics” of problem-solving, will hold one of its first fundraisers for a Senate challenger in New York City on Oct. 17.

“Greg Orman is the perfect prototype of a No Labels candidate. His message and approach that puts problem-solving over partisanship reflects exactly what we’ve been preaching since we started the organization,” said Mark McKinnon, a co-founder of No Labels, who served as a senior political adviser to former President George W. Bush and to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“The fact the Orman is doing so well is a strong sign that voters are hungry for a new approach to politics today,” he said.

MayDay PAC, a super-PAC dedicated to electing candidates who pledge to reform the political process, has launched a campaign to raise $200,000 for Orman by Monday at midnight. Its founders are McKinnon and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig.

Roberts, meanwhile, invited his friends from the Senate — Tea Party star Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate’s shrewdest fiscal watchdog, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) — to join him on a statewide bus tour. National media outlets and inside-the-Beltway political publications went along for the ride.

At a raucous rally in Wichita Thursday, Cruz warned Republican volunteers and conservative activists that Orman had given contributions to President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Reid and refused to take stance on important policy questions such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Most ominously, Cruz warned, Orman won’t say what party he will caucus with — a sign Cruz says he will likely count as a vote for a Democratic Senate majority.

“I’m reminded of another candidate who ran in 2008 who ran on empty promises. He ran on hope and change and he figured a whole bunch of folks would like the rhetoric,” he said. “Mr. Orman seems to be taking a page out of Barack Obama’s book.”

Those arguments are gaining traction among conservative Republicans who were divided by the nasty GOP primary between Roberts and Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf, who has yet to endorse Roberts.

A CNN-ORC poll released last week showed Roberts leading Orman by one percentage point and winning the support of 84 percent of Republicans.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R), one of the most conservative members of the Kansas delegation, said Tea Party voters are coming back to the GOP after the divisive primary.

“We have internal polls in our campaign and we’re checking with Pat’s race,” he said. “We’ve been starting to hear from a lot of Republicans both moderate and conservative.”

Orman is trying to blunt that attack by emphasizing his Republican leanings. He was a member of the college Republicans at Princeton University, gave a contribution to former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in 2010 to stop the implementation of ObamaCare and voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

At the candidates’ debate, Orman said he would not vote either for Reid or Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to serve as leader in the next Congress. He would prefer to elect centrist Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) or Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as Senate leader, he said.

Orman sees an opening against Roberts with independents and centrist Republicans who are disenchanted with Roberts’s shift to the right, along with many GOP leaders in Washington.

“As time has gone by he has drifted more and more to the right,” said Jim Yonally, chairman of Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, a group of former Republican state legislators.

He said Roberts used to be centrist but swung far to the right to outflank Wolf in the primary.

“Roberts was trying to get to the right of him. There isn’t much room to the right of the Tea Party as I look at it,” he said. “A lot of Republicans are very disappointed in the direction the senator has gone over the years.” 

Tags Greg Orman Pat Roberts

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