Democrats are glum about their electoral prospects this cycle. They should be. The President’s dismal approval ratings, myriad scandals and apparent cluelessness on foreign policy all threaten to drag down his party. Yet, while Democrats at the Congressional level battle against the drag their President is exerting, at the state level the dynamic is different (if little better). In several battleground states the GOP won in 2010 and Obama won in 2012 Democratic candidates are trying to beat favored (Scott Walker-WI) or popular Governors (John Kasich-OH). Out west, Democrats are trying to hold Colorado and even be competitive in Nevada (Brian Sandoval). New Mexico (Susanna Martinez) is a long shot at best.
Without a doubt Democrats best shot at picking up a Governor’s mansion this cycle resides in Pennsylvania. Incumbent Governor Tom Corbett is mired in scandals and his approval rating is atrocious. But there is another state that, unlike Pennsylvania, Romney handily won, that Democrats should be looking at. In fact, Democrats penned a book about it. Kansas.
Contrary to conventional wisdom Kansas may be a Republican state but it is not a conservative state. Indeed, the state has a history of electing moderate Republicans to the Senate and moderate Republicans and Dem0crats to the Governor’s mansion. Former HHS Secretary was a former Democratic Governor of the state where she governed as a pragmatic centrist on economic issues. The predecessor to Sebelius, former GOP Governor Bill Graves, was cut from the same cloth. However, recent events have ensured the Kansas GOP has not been immune to the new wave of conservatism that has gripped their party nationwide recently.
This wave in Kansas was personified with the election of former Senator Sam Brownback to the Governor’s mansion in 2010. Brownback, first elected to the Senate to serve out retiring Bob Dole’s term, was arguably the most conservative Senator Kansas had ever elected. He defeated moderate opponent Sheila Frahm (endorsed by Dole) in the primary and served out the remainder of Dole’s term. In 1998 he cruised to a full term and was easily reelected in 2004. In 2009 he announced he was retiring from the Senate and running for Governor. Brownback was easily elected Governor with 63% of the vote.
Having campaigned on enacting a wishlist of conservative reforms Brownback was eager to implement them. But GOP moderates still controlled the legislature despite the losses they had suffered in 2010. However, in 2012, the Tea Party helped Brownback backed forces take control of the legislature. Soon after, Brownback implemented his most series reform. H e pushed through deep tax cuts, nixing business taxes and phasing the top income tax rate from 6.45 percent to 3.9 percent, promising revenue would be made up through increased economic activity. The promise has not lived up to the result. Brownback and the legislature have had to make cuts in education, healthcare and other state services to balance the budget for 2014.
Democrats are understandably eager to hammer Brownback on the cuts. They cite the tax cuts as hurting the economy and forcing the legislature to make painful cuts in education and other services to balance the budget. It seems the public agrees.
Polls show just how endangered the Governor is for a Republican sitting in such a red state (has not voted D for President since 64). Brownback has not been helped by the internal divide riling the Kansas GOP as moderates feel their conservative brethren may have overreached. As a result, moderates have united around primarying Tea Party backed incumbents. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is focusing on defeating longtime GOP Senator Pat Roberts with fringe candidate Milton Wolf.
Despite the polls and state specific dynamic Democrats have yet to invest in the race. In the party’s mind it may not be worth it. Whatever happens in GOP circles the legislature is guaranteed to remain strongly in GOP hands and the Senate race is looking likely to be a blowout (assuming Roberts wins his primary). Further, Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for Governor, is going to have to govern as a moderate and likely see his progressive impulses stymied by the legislature.
Still, for a Democratic Party looking to score a victory in red territory this race should stand out to the party. Brownback is deeply unpopular, Davis is behaving in such a way that has seen moderate Democrats be elected in the past and recently a large group of Republicans came out and endorsed Davis (though it has come out some actually did not).
Republicans, for their part are not concerned. They believe that Brownback has deep roots in the state and that with his cash advantage he can make Davis unacceptable to voters. Only time will tell but both Democrats and Republicans should be looking to Kansas for a close race this cycle.