Reporter's notebook

Brownback’s Shadow Hangs Over Kansas Race

on October 4, 2017 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Former US Senator Samuel Dale Brownback (R-KS) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom,... WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Former US Senator Samuel Dale Brownback (R-KS) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom, on Capitol Hill October 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 7, 2018 1:14 pm

If Kansas has a Democratic governor next year, it might be as much former Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) fault as anyone’s.

Brownback had some of the worst poll numbers in the country when he left office to become President Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom late last year, with just 24 percent of voters saying they approved of the job he did.

His policies were so unpopular in the state that, shortly before he left office, many members of his own party joined with Democrats to repeal his signature tax cuts, reversing them by a supermajority vote over his veto. That reversal came after his dramatic tax cuts and corresponding draconian cuts to state government had left the state’s coffers bare and hurt the local economy. He won reelection by just four points — a shocking result especially given how big a wave election 2014 turned out to be for Republicans nationwide.

Democrats are hopeful they can mount a serious effort to flip the seat this fall, especially if firebrand Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), an acolyte of President Trump who’s at least as hard-right as Brownback, wins his primary on Tuesday night. Kobach has pledged to try to reinstate those same tax cuts moderates in his own party repealed last year.

Kansas Democrats have had success pulling together coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans to oppose the hardliners — that’s how former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) won election and reelection in 2002 and 2006 — and a Kobach nomination would help them do so.

If current Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) prevails on Tuesday, Democrats admit their road gets much tougher, even though Colyer loyally served as Brownback’s lieutenant governor during the budget crises Brownback caused. There’s been scant public polling in the race. But one GOP survey found Colyer leading state Sen. Laura Kelly (D), the most likely Democratic nominee, by double digits, while she and Kobach were statistically tied.

Democrats are also bullish that they can pick up one and possibly two congressional seats. They think Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) is especially vulnerable in his district, anchored in Kansas City’s better educated suburbs, where both Trump and Brownback are unpopular. They’re also hopeful that Paul Davis, the man who almost beat Brownback in 2014, can win a more conservative, rural seat held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS).

Independent, self-funding candidate Greg Orman is polling in the double digits and could play a spoiler for Democrats in the gubernatorial contest. But if they can navigate this race and pull off an upset win — and pick up one or two House seats — they’ll partly have Brownback to thank.

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