Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the impact of Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies on Kansas.
WICHITA, Kan. — Once a long shot, Kansas Democrat Paul Davis’ campaign to unseat this conservative state’s Republican governor, Sam Brownback, has become surprisingly serious. But you can still get a laugh out of Davis on the trail. Just ask if he’s planning to invite President Barack Obama to campaign with him in the Sunflower State.
“I … I,” Davis stammered, in response during an interview at a hotel conference center in Wichita, then broke into laughter. He collected himself long enough to issue an emphatic no.
These days, Kansans will tell you, winning candidates come in one of two flavors: conservative and very conservative. Registered Republicans here outnumber Democrats 2 to 1. But Democrats sometimes sneak through in statewide races. Kathleen Sebelius spent six years as governor before her rocky term as secretary of health and human services. The key is convincing voters that the candidate will be a steadier hand on the government till while avoiding confrontations over God, guns or agriculture. Above all, under no circumstances can a candidate allow him- or herself to be identified as liberal.
Conservative dominance in a state long known for moderation (and, before that, populism, socialism and violent abolitionism) has in many ways been the work of Davis’ opponent. Brownback, the son of eastern Kansas pig farmers, got his start in politics as state agriculture secretary. He went to the U.S. Congress in 1994, turning one of Kansas’ congressional districts from blue to red and contributing to the first GOP majority in the House in 42 years. Two years later, when Bob Dole ran for president, Brownback won his vacated Senate seat, thanks in no small part to a last-minute $400,000 ad blitz paid for by an organization linked to Wichita’s billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
One potential problem for the Democrat: Three months out from the election, many Kansans still don’t know who he is. In a Rasmussen poll released Aug. 12, which gave Davis his biggest lead over Brownback, 1 in 5 surveyed voters didn’t recognize Davis’ name.
It can be tough on the trail too. When Davis and his wife, Stephanie, arrived at the Wichita hotel for his dinner speech to donors, a hotel worker at the entrance politely inquired if they were there to attend the event.
“I don’t actually know who Brownback’s competition is,” admitted Jose Wheeler, an African-American maintenance engineer from Wichita who said he usually votes for Democrats. The father of five has, on the other hand, seen some appealing Brownback ads in which the governor defends his management of state finances — including a claim that the state’s bank account was all but empty when he took office. (That claim has been widely discredited.)
Davis appears to be betting that relative anonymity will help his prospects, perhaps thinking that an anyone-but-Brownback vote will be his best chance. But that risks ceding his image to the governor’s team, which is taking every opportunity to introduce voters to the challenger on their own terms. “Don’t delegate Kansas to an Obama liberal,” an ad from the Republican Governors Association implores. Brownback supporters are also making hay of the fact that Davis hails from Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, in one of the two counties in the state that Brownback failed to win in 2010. (The other holdout, Wyandotte, is a nearby Kansas City suburb home to a quarter of the state’s African-American population. Those two counties were also the only ones Obama carried in 2012.)
For many Kansans, distrust of the “liberal lawyer from Lawrence,” as the Brownback campaign repeatedly calls Davis, is almost second nature. At a Wichita car show, the crowd resting in the shade of the Christian Motorcyclists Association booth laughed at the mention of Brownback’s opposition. “I’m for Second Amendment rights, so you can guess who I’m for,” said Dennis, a burly white biker who would give only his first name. (Davis has affirmed his support for gun ownership but has voted against some measures, including one that Brownback signed into law last year that allows concealed handguns to be carried in schools and the state capitol.) Some of Dennis’ fellow biker-missionaries were less enthusiastic — one, a state employee, noted she hadn’t had a raise in six years. But Dennis was certain the governor could not lose. All he needed to know about Davis, the biker said, was that “he’s going to tax us to death.”
And that’s Davis’ biggest problem in a nutshell. Kansans may not like the effects of the tax cuts, but they don’t like taxes either. It seems that if voters suspect Davis will tackle the shortfalls by raising income tax rates, then he will be identified as a liberal and lose.
So Davis is doing everything he can to fight that impression. “We’re not proposing to raise taxes. We’re proposing to freeze the rates,” he insisted in an interview with Al Jazeera America. Asked if he would reverse Brownback’s much criticized privatization of the state Medicaid system (the doling out of those contracts is reportedly under investigation by the FBI), Davis — who worked under Sebelius at the state insurance commissioner’s office more than a decade ago — demurred, saying only that as governor he would review the program.
Davis endorses expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (which Brownback has opposed). But he was quick to call the ACA rollout — which cost Sebelius her cabinet post — “a disaster.” As “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoed out of the adjoining conference room where he was about to speak, Davis made it clear that he knew what kind of voters he had to court. “People are just not seeing the governor’s priorities as reflective of what their priorities are,” he explained. “Kansans are conservative by nature.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the FBI is reportedly examining contracts with the state Medicaid program, not Medicare.