NYTimes: Conservative Experiment Faces Revolt in Reliably Red Kansas


HUTCHINSON, Kan. — In his 40 years living in Kansas, Konrad Hastings cannot remember voting for a Democrat. He is the type who agonizes over big purchases, trying to save as much money as possible. He is against stricter gun laws, opposes abortion in most cases and prefers less government involvement in his life.

But when he casts his ballot for governor in November, he plans to shun the leader of this state’s conservative movement, the Republican incumbent, Sam Brownback, and vote for the Democratic challenger.

“He’s leading Kansas down,” said Mr. Hastings, 68, who said he voted for Mr. Brownback four years ago, when he easily won his first term. “We’re going to be bankrupt in two or three years if we keep going his way.”

Voters like Mr. Hastings are at the heart of Mr. Brownback’s surprising fight for political survival.

Although every statewide elected official in Kansas is a Republican and President Obama lost the state by more than 20 points in the last election, Mr. Brownback’s proudly conservative policies have turned out to be so divisive and his tax cuts have generated such a drop in state revenue that they have caused even many Republicans to revolt. Projections put state budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, raising questions of whether the state can adequately fund education in particular.

This has boosted the hopes of the Democratic candidate, Paul Davis, the State House minority leader, who has shot up in the polls even though he has offered few specifics about how he would run the state. Many disaffected Republicans might give Mr. Davis their vote because, if nothing else, he is not Mr. Brownback.

“There’s just a lot of negative momentum behind Brownback, and Davis has been hammering that home,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political-science professor at Fort Hays State University.

The governor’s campaign has appeared so worried about his weak poll numbers that it took the unusual step last month of releasing an internal poll that showed the race to be essentially tied, hardly something that would usually be showcased. 

In some ways, it is unsurprising that many Kansas Republicans have turned on Mr. Brownback. This is a state that once had a tradition of centrist Republicans, like former Senator Bob Dole, and has had five Democratic governors over the past half-century.

But much of this moderation went by the wayside as Mr. Brownback and conservative majorities in the Legislature turned the state into a laboratory for the policies they had run on. In addition to passing the largest income tax cuts in state history, they have made it easier to carry guns in public buildings, turned over management of Medicaid to private insurance companies, made it more difficult to get an abortion, and made it harder to qualify for public assistance.

Even some of Kansas’ staunchest Republicans have found some of these measures to be too far to the right. More than 100 current and former Republican elected officials have endorsed Mr. Davis.

Mr. Brownback, 58, a former United States senator who grew up on a Kansas farm, has defended his record and is trying to force Mr. Davis, who is from Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas in one of the state’s most liberal regions, to define himself.

“He’s been mostly just hiding as a candidate,” Mr. Brownback said in an interview. “All his statements have been basically against me, and none of it has been what he would do.”

The governor has painted Mr. Davis as a supporter of President Obama who wants to raise taxes and force the president’s health care law on Kansans.

Mr. Davis has hammered away at the “governor’s economic experiment,” as he put it in a debate held at the State Fair, saying it had left Kansas with a vast budget deficit. “It’s damaging our schools. It’s hurting our economy. It’s jeopardizing our future,” he said. 

Mr. Brownback has also been set back by matters unrelated to lawmaking. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in April that federal authorities were investigating the fund-raising and lobbying activities of some of his associates.

As Election Day draws closer, both sides can expect an even tighter, and perhaps rougher, clash, with outside groups stepping up their involvement.

The Republican Governors Association has run television ads attacking Mr. Davis and linking him to Mr. Obama. The Brownback campaign’s ads have sought to paint a rosy financial picture for the state. Political analysts expect Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by the Koch brothers, the Wichita-based billionaires, to step in, too.

The Kansas Values Institute, a left-leaning advocacy organization, has run negative ads about Mr. Brownback. Mr. Davis has run an ad that said Mr. Brownback was taking the state in the wrong direction. But he also had to pull one of his television ads after it was revealed that one of the actors had been arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute.

Most criticism of Mr. Brownback has centered on the tax cuts, which slashed individual income tax rates and eliminated taxes on nonwage earnings for nearly 200,000 small businesses. The most recent fiscal year ended with state revenues more than $300 million short of expectations. 

Based on decreased revenue from the tax cuts, the state’s nonpartisan legislative research department estimates that the budget will have to be adjusted by $1.3 billion, either through spending cuts or additional revenue, over the next five years in order to remain balanced.

Opponents of the governor have used this to stoke fears that he would cut vital services. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have downgraded Kansas’ credit rating.

Mr. Brownback said that the steps he had taken on Medicaid, on bolstering the teachers’ pension system and on cutting taxes had been needed to stabilize state finances, and that revenue growth would resume. The tax cuts will attract new businesses and residents — and, in turn, cash — to the state, he said. And because he has reduced the size of government and made it more efficient, he said, state revenues do not need to grow that much to fulfill budget obligations.

As promising signs, the governor and his allies point to an increase in the number of private-sector jobs since the tax cuts went into effect in January 2013. They also promote a record number of new business filings — more than 15,000 — in the state last year as a sign that businesses were attracted to Kansas. 

Spending is also an issue. Mr. Brownback said he would not cut funding for education or other essential services, and since taking office he has increased the total state dollars that go toward primary and secondary schools by more than $200 million. He has put tens of millions of dollars toward new programs for technical education and reading initiatives.

But most of the increase has gone toward things like teacher pensions and building maintenance. When adjusted for inflation, state spending on classroom-related expenses has remained flat, if not decreased slightly, each year, according to an analysis by Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

So far, Mr. Davis, 42, the son of two teachers, has spoken mostly in broad terms about his priorities — improving public schools and investing in work force training and higher education. “We know that if we have a highly skilled work force, industry will come,” he said.

The only specific plan he has put forward is to freeze Mr. Brownback’s tax cuts next year and to appoint a commission to address tax issues. 

“I’m not giving people the illusion that this is the magic bullet that’s going to fix the very, very deep financial problems that Governor Brownback has caused,” said Mr. Davis, a lawyer who joined the House in 2003 and has been minority leader since 2008. “But I think it is a good first step.”

Ray Merrick, the Republican speaker of the House, called freezing the tax cuts a nonstarter. “Right now, the Legislature on both sides, House and Senate, are on the side of the governor,” he said.

The question is whether most voters will stand with the governor. “I’m not sure that some of the tax policies have been as effective as we’d like them to be,” said Dianne Blick, a 58-year-old development officer from Hutchinson, who has usually voted for Republicans but is undecided in this race. “Either candidate has to really convince me that they can create positive change and can work across the aisle.”

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