Sam Brownback Has Made Enemies, May Lose Election

The Kansas governor's policies are starting to look too conservative even for one of the reddest states, giving opponent Paul Davis a slight edge.
by | October 6, 2014

Life can get difficult for a politician who has made a lot of enemies.         

Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas, has been trailing by small but consistent margins in polls against Paul Davis, the Democratic leader of the state House. Davis has been ahead by four or five points in most polls.

The primary reason Brownback is struggling appears to be voter antipathy toward his ambitious tax cuts, which have led to revenue shortfalls and a series of bond rating downgrades.

But Brownback has also hurt himself by antagonizing one group after another. Some of them were small, such as people angered when he zeroed out funding for the state arts commission. Some of them were one-time allies whose help he could use now, such as the moderate Republican state senators he helped target for defeat as part of a conservative takeover of the chamber two years ago. More than 100 Republican officials have endorsed Davis.

Brownback also created an army of opponents when he signed a law that eliminated tenure protections for teachers. "There's a lot of momentum," said Mark Desetti, director of legislative and political advocacy of the Kansas branch of the National Education Association. "There are a lot of people who are seeing Gov. Brownback as very, very vulnerable, and with good reason."

At the start of the year, it might have seemed hard to believe that Brownback would be struggling. Kansas is a conservative state that has long tended to elect Republicans.

It's also a state, however, that has elected Democrats to serve as governor from time to time. In fact, since 1966, Democrats have taken over the governorship every 12 years -- a short historical precedent whose timing is perfect for Davis.

"Kansans have a history of throwing out one-term Republican governors that they think weren't paying attention or went too far," says Dan Watkins, a former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. "The level of dissatisfaction with each of those governors is nothing compared to what's happening with Sam Brownback."

A poll released on Friday by Gallup showed that while far more Kansans identify with the Republican Party than with the Democrats -- 47 percent to 34 percent -- support for the GOP is at its lowest ebb in five years.

That same poll showed that fewer than one-third of Kansans approve of President Obama's performance. Brownback and allied groups such as the Republican Governors Association have not hesitated to tie Davis to Obama and other unpopular national Democrats such as U.S. House leader Nancy Pelosi.

Davis faced a setback last month when a small-town newspaper revealed he'd been caught in a raid at a strip club back in 1998, when he was 26. Davis, at the time a lawyer for the owner of the club, was not accused of breaking any laws.

The revelation of that incident spattered a little dirt on Davis' clean-cut image, but it may not have moved many moderate Republicans or independents to reconsider Brownback. In fact, the story may have been drowned out in Kansas by high-stakes legal wrangling over the U.S. Senate race. (Polls show Republican incumbent Pat Roberts trailing independent Greg Orman.

To the extent the governor's race turns on character issues, Brownback may have to worry about potential embarrassment from an FBI investigation into alleged influence-peddling by a former top aide.

Most of the focus in the race remains on issues such as taxes and education, with Davis pledging to block tax cuts that have yet to be implemented until spending on education reaches what he considers an acceptable level.

Brownback continues to argue that his tax policies are aiding the overall economy. He pledges to protect rural schools, seeking to appeal to a constituency that remains most likely to vote Republican.

But Brownback clearly has problems with moderates in suburban areas such as Johnson County, outside of Kansas City. One of the key indicators of the trouble he's in came not from Davis' polling numbers, but the fact that 37 percent of Republicans supported his little-known opponent in the August primary.

Unless more Republicans come home to Brownback, a governor many thought would end up launching a second run for the presidency won't even win a second term.