This combination of photographs shows 2018 Kansas gubernatorial candidates Kris Kobach (R), Laura Kelly (D) and independent Greg Orman. (Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal/AP)
Columnist

Years of covering politics makes one appreciate that some voters actually like the sort of phony-baloney candidate who — despite having served exactly zero days in the military — would ride in parades aboard a flag-painted Jeep with a fake machine gun mounted on the back. Maybe these voters feel a surge of patriotism at the sight of a grown man playing soldier with a toy gun, but more likely they just enjoy the way it drives the liberals crazy.

The problem for Kris Kobach, the ersatz G.I. Joe running for governor of Kansas, is that the number charmed by such hooey rarely approaches 50 percent.

Nor is the Jeep the only factor capping Kobach’s potential share of Tuesday’s vote. Though he is the Republican nominee in a heavily Republican state, many Republicans want nothing to do with him. Two former governors and a pair of former U.S. senators are among the long list of GOP stalwarts who have endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly, a veteran state senator.

Then there’s Kobach’s disastrous performance in federal court this year, where the American Civil Liberties Union shredded his claims of widespread voter fraud in Kansas and the judge tartly admonished the former law professor to learn basic rules of procedure.

And there’s his membership on the advisory board of a sham charity that raised at least $1 million in the guise of helping veterans but kept more than 94 percent of the dough for expenses. Kobach’s name and photograph remained on the organization’s website when I checked on Nov. 1 — nearly nine months after the Better Business Bureau blew the whistle on the scam.

But alienating the majority doesn’t necessarily spell death for a political campaign — not if the race has a strong third candidate. Polls that show Kobach and Kelly neck and neck in the home stretch also find independent businessman Greg Orman drawing enough support to be a decisive factor, though he’s too far back to win.

Actually, Orman is one of three men who will be decisive in this race, and none of them is named Kobach.

The first is Donald J. Trump, of course. He carried the Sunflower State by close to a quarter of a million votes, and he remains relatively popular despite his tariffs and his Twitter feed. The president’s strong endorsement of Kobach — Trump’s study-buddy in the art of immigration demagoguery — was likely the difference in the secretary of state’s narrow primary win over incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer. But there are signs that anti-Trump energy is high in the suburbs of Kansas City and Wichita, where strong turnout against the provocateur in chief could tip the race to Kelly.

Low-key and common-sensical, Kelly handles the volatile topic of Trump with great care. She saves her fire for another looming influence: former governor Sam Brownback. Swept into office by the conservative backlash of 2010, Brownback flopped as an executive. The big tax cut he championed failed to spark investment, create jobs or pay for itself as promised. Brownback’s fellow Republicans were forced to clean up the fiasco with a tax hike last year, while the chastened governor seized Trump’s offer of a federal appointment to make his escape from Topeka.

Kobach, unfazed, promises another big tax cut if he’s elected. Kelly warns that the damage from the last go-round — inadequate school funding, a foster-care system in crisis, unpaid pension obligations and so on — will take years to repair. Tuesday’s results will tell us whether the memory of Brownback’s debacle remains and whether Kansans learn from experience.

But then there’s Orman, a wealthy entrepreneur and investor who made a bundle in the energy-efficiency business. The son of a Republican furniture-store owner and a liberal Democratic mom, Orman is convinced that the time has come for independent candidates to break the partisan “stranglehold” on American politics.

Things looked promising for Mr. None-of-the-above when he ran for Senate in 2014. He caught Republican Sen. Pat Roberts dozing. When Orman shot up in the polls, state Democrats dropped out of the race to give Orman a clear shot. Only a late cavalry charge led by Bob Dole himself, the aged Republican hero from tiny Russell, Kan., saved Roberts’s seat.

Now Orman’s entire project is in doubt. Even an independent needs friends, but having struck at the GOP without winning, Orman is making enemies among the Democrats, who fear his vain campaign will let Kobach slip into office. Their hope that Orman’s friends could persuade him to repay the favor of 2014 by stepping aside for Kelly appeared to be dashed on Oct. 30, when Orman’s campaign treasurer quit waiting on the candidate and threw his support to the Democrat.

The Sage of Emporia, William Allen White, famously asked, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The answer he’d get this year could be that the joker in the Jeep actually becomes governor.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.