Sam Brownback’s Kansas Catastrophe

The Kansas Governor should be cruising to re-election and fending off 2016 rumors. Instead, he’s behind in the polls as “Brownbackistan” falls apart.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback should be coasting to re-election this fall. The soft-spoken son of a Kansas pig farmer is the conservative governor of a deep red state, and he’s running in a year when Republicans will likely have a national advantage over Democrats. Instead, Brownback is now fighting for political survival in what his detractors call the theocratic dictatorship of “Brownbackistan.”

If Brownbackistan were running surpluses with essential services humming along, the governor would probably be fending off rumors of a 2016 presidential run. Instead, he is locked in a tight race with the House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who led Brownback by 6 points in a recent SurveyUSA poll and has been endorsed by more than 100 current and former Republican officials. Last week, the Cook Political Report moved the November contest from a likely Republican win to a pure toss-up.

Wint Winter, a former state senator who has known Brownback since he was 14, is one of the Republicans backing Davis.

“I had hoped that it wouldn’t be as extreme as it’s been,” Winter told The Daily Beast of Brownback’s tenure. “I knew from Sam’s time in the Senate that he had a passionate affection for social issues, but what we didn't know was that Sam would use this state as crash test dummies for his own fiscal experiments. We have people in our group who are moved by different issues, but all of them come back to the fact that Sam did not have the right to use Kansas as an experiment.”

The experiment that Winter referred to is a sweeping income tax cut plan that Brownback enacted in 2011, which eliminated income taxes for small businesses, cut the highest income tax rates by 25 percent, and made smaller cuts for people with lower rates. Brownback has also signed bills cutting state budgets, declared that life begins “at fertilization,” and created an “Office of the Repealer” to eliminate state laws, regulations and agencies. He’s also ended guaranteed teacher tenure, and narrowed eligibility for welfare and Medicaid.

The tax cuts have come at a particularly steep price. The Wall Street Journal reported that tax collections fell by $685 million in the first 11 months of the fiscal year, putting Kansas on track to blow through its $700 million reserve fund by the middle of next year.

Brownback has insisted that he’ll make up future shortfalls with economic growth, but with 40 percent of state revenue traditionally coming from those taxes and no specific plan to make up the shortfall, Moody’s Investor Service recently downgraded the state’s debt rating. In their decision, Moody’s cited both the tax cuts and a state Supreme Court decision that found that Brownback and the legislature had cut funding for schools unfairly and too deeply in 2011, and would have to find budget savings elsewhere.

In 2011, Jim Yonally, another former Republican state legislator backing Davis, started Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, a group of more than 70 current and former GOP officials, when he said he saw Brownback taking the state in what Yonelly thought was the wrong direction.

“I'm really disturbed by continued reduction in funding for education in Kansas,” he said. “I was a poor boy who grew up on a farm in Kansas but was able to scrape enough together to get a college degree. Today if a kid has enough money to go to college, he almost has enough money to start a business and do without school. I don’t think that’s good for our state.”

Polling shows that the education question is hurting Brownback the most. For the plurality of voters who list education as their top issue in the SurveyUSA poll, Brownback loses to Davis 73 percent to 19 percent. That same poll showed one in four registered Republicans defecting to Davis.

While Brownback has technically increased money spent on education, the increases have gone to legally required obligations to shore up the state’s teacher retirement system. Per-pupil funding has fallen and cuts in local schools have alarmed teachers and parents. The Wichita Eagle reported that individual schools have eliminated everything from high school librarians to kindergarten activity funding to janitor positions, leaving some teachers to vacuum their classrooms after recess.

Despite the cuts and complaints, Brownback told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd he has no regrets over the tax cuts and promised to “hit the accelerator” on more of the same kinds of policies in a second term. “It's really starting to work the way we hoped it would,” Brownback said.

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Above and beyond his policies, a final piece of Brownback’s tenure that could come back to haunt him in November was a decision to campaign against moderate Republican legislators in 2012. The result has been what local politicians call a “cleansing” of the existing Republican ranks, and an all-out battle within the state among Tea Party Republicans and the older school moderates.

“To say the there's a split in the Republican Party is to give the banana split a bad name,” said Winter. “There are three parties in Kansas- the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Brownback Party. He has in effect created his own party.”

Between the looming budget shortfall, the education cuts, the Republican family feud, and an ongoing FBI investigation into former Brownback loyalists, the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy says that Brownback is weighed down in a year that he should be winning easily.

“Kansas is probably the last state I thought I’d put in the toss-up column,” Duffy told the Beast. “It's not about the political environment, it's not about the political landscape, it's about Brownback and the actions he took.”