Kansas voters grow tired of Republican revolution

Gov. Sam Brownback’s experiment to reshape the state economy has resulted in cuts to services – and blowback from voters

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is facing a surprisingly tough re-election challenge.
John Hanna / AP

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.

Paul Davis, the minority leader in the Kansas House of Representatives, is challenging Brownback in November’s election.
Charlie Riedel / AP

As a senator, Brownback became nationally known for his opposition to abortion, gay rights and gangsta rap. He also helped train the next generation of Washington conservatives. In the 1990s, future vice presidential candidate and GOP budget guru Rep. Paul Ryan served as Brownback’s legislative director. After a failed bid to secure the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Brownback returned to Kansas in 2010 to win the governorship in a landslide, carrying 103 of the state’s 105 counties. In the race, he outspent his opponent by 406 percent. Many expected him to sail on to a second term and then resume his quest for the presidency.

Yet Brownback trails Davis in recent statewide polls by as many as 10 points. In part that’s because Davis, the current minority leader in the Kansas House of Representatives, has reached across the aisle, securing the endorsements of more than 100 current and former Republican officials.

But the biggest thing going for the Democrat is what’s going against Brownback and the rest of Kansas: the condition of the state budget. For the past three years, the governor has carried out an aggressive plan to remake the state economy. Under a plan co-designed and -promoted by the architect of Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economic policy, Arthur Laffer, the Republican-controlled statehouse slashed the top income tax rate by more than a quarter, from 6.45 percent to 4.8 percent. It also created enormous tax loopholes for businesses. By some readings, an executive could avoid paying any tax on profits or salaries by converting a corporation to a limited-liability company, or LLC.

Brownback told Kansans in 2012 that over five years the new tax policy would create more than 22,000 jobs beyond normal growth and attract more residents. The governor described the effort on MSNBC’s Morning Joe as a “real, live experiment”; given Brownback’s national ambitions, many wondered if his real goal was expanding his laboratory to include the other 49 states.

Then the results started coming in. Unemployment fell, along with the rest of the country’s, as the economy improved from the worst years of the recession — thanks in part to the federal stimulus. But contrary to Brownback’s promises, Kansas job growth has lagged all its neighboring states’ except Nebraska’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its population has grown at half the national rate.

Rather, the most immediate effect of the tax cuts has been the more predictable one: less money for state services. Kansas collected $310 million less in revenue than planned during the April and May tax season. The state’s nonpartisan legislative research division estimated when the tax cuts were passed that the state would collect $4.5 billion less through 2018. To make up for some of the losses, the state government targeted the pocketbooks of low-income consumers, reducing a planned sales tax cut and eliminating tax rebates for items like food, child care, access for the disabled and alternative-fuel equipment.

‘Brownback’s cut us pretty hard on the financial and the educational funding, and what he’s done to the teachers is just disgusting.’

Clyde Taverner

Davis supporter from Wichita

Fran Lee, center, and other supporters of Rep. Paul Davis cheer during a gubernatorial debate at the Kansas State Fair, Sept. 6, 2014, in Hutchinson.
Lindsey Bauman / The Hutchinson News / AP

It wasn’t enough for creditors. After the reported shortfalls came in, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s downgraded the state’s credit rating.

Brownback’s campaign defends the falling revenue. “That’s what happens when you cut taxes,” spokesman John Milburn said at one of the governor’s campaign stops in the capital, Topeka. “As long as you’re able to provide those services — which we are — that’s good governance.” The governor’s plan is still for the income tax rate to ultimately fall to zero, he said.

But many Kansans don’t feel that state services are up to par. By far, the most politically damaging problems for Brownback have been in education. Public schools, which educate 95 percent of Kansas schoolchildren, have seen their budgets shrink, contributing to school closings and stoking anger across the state. Earlier this year, the courts stepped in to order the legislature to provide the needed funds.

“Brownback’s cut us pretty hard on the financial and the educational funding, and what he’s done to the teachers is just disgusting,” said Clyde Taverner, a Davis supporter from Wichita whose wife is a retired high school language-arts teacher.

Still, the governor’s campaign remains relentlessly positive. “The sun is shining in Kansas, and don’t let anyone tell you any different,” Brownback says in one ad. And he has reasons to be confident, at least where his prospects are concerned.

‘I don’t actually know who Brownback’s competition is.’

Jose Wheeler

maintenance engineer from Wichita

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.

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