In one of the most improbable poll results to emerge from any state this year, a SurveyUSA poll two weeks ago showed Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback trailing Democratic opponent Paul Davis by a margin of 48 percent to 40 percent among likely voters statewide.
"Improbable" is the adjective most frequently used to characterize these results because it accurately reflects the idea that any Republican governor, especially a national conservative hero for his no-tax, small government agenda, could be trailing a Democrat in Kansas. In the last 76 years, the Sunflower State has elected only five Democratic governors.
So why is Brownback, a former two-term U.S. senator who captured the governorship in 2010 with 63 percent of the vote, in political hot water this year?
To pundits, Brownback is the underdog against state House Minority Leader Davis because the governor has pursued a decidedly conservative agenda. With Brownback in charge as the state faces a $300 million revenue shortfall, The Washington Post concluded "he may be paying a political price."
Brownback supporters say his agenda is working, but like the tax and spending cuts Ronald Reagan helped put into law in 1981, its positive results may not occur immediately.
They say that Brownback's political dilemma has less to do with policy and more to do with politics. The same Brownback backers say that in 2012, the governor targeted 11 moderate Republican legislators who were opposed to his agenda and nine were beaten in primaries by conservative opponents. Among those beaten was State Senate President Stephen Morris.
In 2014, the "chickens are coming home to roost" for Brownback. More than 100 Republicans, including nearly all of the defeated legislators and their supporters, are publicly throwing their support to Democrat Davis.
Brownback's current underdog status is probably due to both reasons.
With Republicans in firm control of both houses of the legislature, Brownback successfully guided to law major cuts in the state income tax rate (from 6.4 percent to 4.8 percent) with the eventual goal of abolishing the state income tax. While it is true that Kansas faces a major shortfall, it also has unemployment of only 4.9 percent — "the tenth lowest in the nation," Brownback proudly says — and has witnessed a growth in technical education.
"And with more people starting their own businesses from the home, we have seen a record in LLC filings — 15,500 in 2013," Brownback said during an Americans for Tax Reform luncheon earlier this year.
But it is also true that whenever there is dramatic change and a loss of government programs, there are also hurt feelings among those who lose the services of those programs. Moreover, whenever there is a split among Kansas Republicans, Democrats are the beneficiary.
In 1956, for example, after state Rep. Warren Shaw defeated Gov. Fred Hall in a rancorous GOP primary, Democrat George Docking won the governorship in the fall. In 1966, after Republican Gov. William Avery infuriated conservatives by raising the state sales tax, he lost in November to Democrat Robert Docking, George's son.
Both Dockings ran as centrist Democrats, as Davis is now doing. An interesting footnote: Davis's lieutenant governor running mate is Jill Docking, daughter-in-law of Robert Docking.
If Sam Brownback, who has already made history of sorts with a bold and controversial agenda, next makes history by winning re-election, it will be one of the defining political moments of 2014.
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