GOP moderates revolt in Kansas
By: Manu Raju
July 15, 2014 06:37 PM EDT
WICHITA, Kan. — Moderate Republicans have been kicked around by the tea party for years in Congress and the states.
Here in Kansas, they’re fighting back.
A moderate GOP uprising is in full swing against Gov. Sam Brownback, the fierce fiscal and social conservative whose policies led to a purge of middle-of-the-road Republicans from the legislature early in his tenure.
In a rare and surprising act of political defiance on Tuesday, more than 100 Republicans, including current and former officeholders, endorsed Brownback’s opponent, statehouse Democratic leader Paul Davis. Polls show the challenger with a surprisingly strong shot at taking out Brownback in November.
Across conservative states in the Great Plains and the South, the last vestiges of Democratic power are at risk of being washed away in the fall elections by the tides of President Barack Obama’s unpopularity. In the Jayhawk State, where Obama was trounced twice and is reviled by conservatives despite his own Kansas roots, Democrats are looking to buck that trend: Davis is presenting himself as part of a proud tradition of centrists from both parties.
The race is shaping up as a contest between a pair candidates portraying one another as outside the mainstream. Davis says Brownback’s hard-right agenda has damaged the state economy and undermined the spirit of compromise that had long prevailed in the state Capitol. Brownback is casting Davis as an Obama supporter who’s too liberal for a reddening state. Moderate Republicans could tip the balance.
“Sam Brownback has not only not been able to work with Democrats, he hasn’t been able to work with a lot of the people in his own party,” Davis said in a recent interview during a campaign stop at a technical college in Wichita. “He essentially declared war with moderate Republicans during the last state Senate election. Many moderate Republicans saw that, and they are coming to support my campaign.”
One of those GOP moderates is Steve Morris. As the president of the Kansas state Senate when Brownback was sworn into office in 2011, Morris battled with Brownback and conservatives in the statehouse, including over a highly contentious tax reform legislation that has become a central issue in this year’s campaign. When Morris faced a conservative primary challenge in 2012, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, Kansas Right to Life and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce spent big to help his opponent pull off an upset against the GOP leader.
In the interview, Morris said Brownback privately acknowledged responsibility for his political demise, suggesting he could have done more to stop the purge.
“I don’t approve of what happened, but I’m responsible for it,” Brownback said in a telephone call to Morris, according to the ex-legislator. A spokesman for the governor did not comment on the phone call but noted that Brownback did not endorse a candidate in the primary.
Now Morris is repaying the political favor, by endorsing Davis along with a suite of current and former Republican politicians, including former statehouse speakers, local mayors, city council members, GOP delegates and an ex-congresswoman (Jan Meyers). Many of them argue that the governor’s policies on public schools, highway funding, Medicaid and taxes are too much for moderates to swallow.
“It’s a big step for every one of us … and a major departure from our Republican roots,” Dick Bond, a Republican and former Kansas Senate president, said at the Topeka event Tuesday. “[November] should be about electing a moderate, common-sense Kansan as governor.”
Republican allies of the governor characterized the endorsements as an act of desperation by embittered ex-politicians. And in a recent interview at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita on a hot summer morning, Brownback dismissed the criticism of his tenure, saying he has been aggressive in trying to right the state’s fiscal ship.
“I represent a pragmatic conservatism, or a bleeding-heart conservatism, where I say, ‘OK, let’s make it work,’” Brownback said. “Bob Dole did a fair amount of that too.”
The 57-year-old Brownback is trying to energize a base of staunch conservatives, particularly the religious community, that has been a source of his political strength through one term in the House, three Senate elections, and a victory in the governor’s race during the tea party wave of 2010. He’s now trying to tap back into that base of support, enlisting the likes of another cultural conservative warrior — Rick Santorum — to campaign with him Monday at rallies outside of Kansas City and Wichita.
Even though Brownback’s star continues to rise on the far-right, some polls show him in a perilous position with Republican voters in the state. A Survey USA poll last month showed the governor losing to Davis by six points, with one in four registered Republicans defecting to the Democratic ticket, as well as independents turning the Democrat’s way by 19 points.
While Brownback holds a slim 1-point lead over Davis with male voters, according to the poll, he loses women by 14 points, a bloc that also might be swayed by the No. 2 on the Democratic ticket, Jill Docking. Brownback faces a primary challenge from Jennifer Winn, a Wichita businesswoman, but is heavily favored ahead of the August challenge.
In the interview, Brownback downplayed the poll numbers, blaming them on “mostly negative” media in the state. Calling Davis a blank slate, the governor signaled a more aggressive ad campaign ahead that will seek to define his challenger as too liberal and out of step with the state.
Voters “don’t know who my opponent is,” said Brownback, who ran for president briefly in 2008 before dropping out. “He’s an Obama-style Democrat, they don’t know he’s voted for tax increases. He was an Obama delegate twice. He supports Obamacare.
“And we had to make a number of tough decisions early on to get the state growing, get people moving back to Kansas.”
Whether Brownback has boosted or stunted the state’s growth, however, is a flashpoint in the race. Brownback pushed through two rounds of steep tax cuts since he took office in 2011, sharply slashing individual income taxes and exempting some business income from state taxes. He promised that the lower tax rates would spur economic growth and bring jobs to the state.
But so far, the tax cuts have yet to meet Brownback’s promise of an economic resurgence — and some blame them for blowing a hole in the state budget. Through the fiscal year that ended in July, the state reported taking in $338 million less in revenues than had been originally expected. That came just months after the state suffered a rare debt downgrade from Moody’s Investors Services, with the tax cuts and higher spending levels prompting sharp criticism that the state is on an unsustainable course.
While Brownback touts private sector job growth under his watch, critics point to other economic indicators — such as the state’s Gross Domestic Product for 2013 — to suggest that the state is lagging behind neighbors in the region.
“Our economy needs to improve,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran when asked about Brownback’s difficulties. “And I just think it’s difficult being a governor in difficult circumstances.”
Brownback argues that the full-brunt of the tax cuts have yet to take effect, and when they do, he says, the economy will pick up steam.
“Taxes take time to have impact,” Brownback said.
The budget isn’t Brownback’s only liability. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in April that the FBI was investigating whether confidantes of the governor were involved in an influence-peddling scheme around the governor’s attempt to privatize the state’s Medicaid program. Brownback has denied any wrongdoing and his team has questioned the political motivations behind the leaks.
But he declined to say in an interview whether he’s been in contact with the FBI.
“I’ve made my comments on that,” Brownback said. (Davis called the allegations “very troubling.”)
Still, Moran, a Republican who now occupies the Senate seat Brownback vacated to become governor, said that the state’s political trends will ultimately help in November.
“Kansas is a Republican state trending Republican,” Moran said.
Indeed, two years ago in state primaries across Kansas, conservatives won virtually every major race for the state Senate and House — where they hold significant supermajorities over Democrats in both chambers. Between 2008-2013, Republicans have seen their voter registration grow at a faster clip than the Democrats, with the GOP adding 43,000 voters to its rolls, compared to just 8,500 new Democrats. But independent voters are still a sizable portion of the electorate, making up 524,000 out of an electorate of 1.8 million, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office.
Buoyed by the strength of conservatives, the legislature enacted some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country, as well as a controversial education financing measure that prompted protests from teachers groups.
In the interview, Davis said he would not to try to loosen the abortion laws — “We have one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and I’m not going to seek to change the law” — but he said he would try to delay the second phase of the income tax cuts in order to spend more money on public schools. Such a delay could add more than $1.2 billion to the revenue of the state, prompting Brownback to paint Davis as a tax-and-spending liberal.
“What’s Paul Davis’ answer? To raise taxes?” said Brownback, who also has backed increased spending for public schools. “A campaign is about choices at the end of the day: Are you going to choose a Reagan approach or an Obama approach?”
Still, the bigger question for Brownback may be how many more Republicans will ultimately defect.
“Our governor has made some people mad,” state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who backs Brownback, said with a laugh.