Four years ago, Sam Brownback was elected the governor of Kansas in a landslide. Within two years, he was able to elect a conservative majority in the state senate, a goal that had eluded GOP activists for decades. Then Brownback did what he said he would do — cut taxes, reformed education, and opposed Obamacare, earning the praise of many on the right, including Grover Norquist.
So why is Brownback, facing re-election, now fighting for his political life?
First, it has become a truism that when a Republican governor aggressively takes on the left, he or she will be viciously attacked. Brownback has succeeded in enacting a solid conservative agenda. He eliminated income taxes on small businesses, and reduced income taxes on everyone else. He fought to keep coal as part of electricity generation feedstock. He refused the money and mandates of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Combine Brownback’s bold reforms with his longtime reputation as a culture warrior, and you get a tantalizing target for the left.
It’s true also that Brownback’s agenda, much like the national reforms orchestrated by Thatcher or Reagan, will grow Kansas’s economy, but this economic medicine will take time to work. The early news is positive, as more than 50,000 jobs have been added to the state’s economy, and there are actual examples of businesses moving from neighboring Missouri to Kansas, which now has zero business income taxes. But, the governor inherited a terrible budget situation that was exacerbated by irresponsible decisions by his Democrat predecessors, including the infamous Kathleen Sebelius. Brownback took over when Kansas was in a hole, and it will take time for him to dig the state out.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the peril facing Brownback is that my home state of Kansas is too often taken for granted by national bigwigs due to its deep redness. Now voters in the Sunflower State are sending one very clear message: throw away your assumptions.
Republicans across the country and in D.C. told donors and activists that Brownback would be fine. After all, Democrats have only won three U.S. Senate races in Kansas in a century. This complacency allowed donors on the left to launch a sneak attack on a conservative champion who had only a modest sum in his campaign account. Democrats, including incensed teachers unions, started spending early and heavily. They were successful even in persuading moderate and liberal Republicans to endorse the governor’s opponent, Paul Davis.
All this is exacerbated by Kansas’s unique allegiance to the Republican Party, which includes many intraparty feuds. Just to take an example, Kansas is less conservative than neighboring Oklahoma, but it is definitely more Republican. This is true because the party is more ideologically diverse in Kansas than in other states. Therefore, successful statewide candidates must thread a needle: they have to be acceptable to conservatives and yet still appeal to a significant minority of moderates. Infighting has greatly impacted the list of those occupying the governor’s mansion at Cedar Crest. The Republicans who have managed to escape GOP feuding alive were, unlike Brownback, definitely not champions of the conservative base.
Finally, deep red voters are so upset with the shenanigans of the Obama administration that some of them begin to see incumbents — any incumbents, even those who have spent the last six years fighting the president, like Brownback — as the problem. Rejection of the current occupant of the White House will be the major characteristic of the election this fall. Indeed, these days President Obama looks less like Joe Cool and more like Jimmy Carter: unpopular, mired in the Middle East, and a lame duck that just keeps dragging on. That said voters’ frustration will not always obey boundaries and may ricochet to hit even GOP politicians.
The future for Kansas is bright if it stays on path it is being led down by Sam Brownback — and Kansas has a lot riding on an affirmation of those policies. Brownback, like every incumbent who wants another term, is going to need to connect with an electorate that is so angry that it sometimes doesn’t even know who to be angry at. The good news for Kansas is that Brownback seems like a man who understands this and will be able to get the job done.