Politics & Policy

Can Brownback Survive?

A conservative reformer is under siege.

Even before his election as governor in 2010, liberal observers were warning about Sam Brownback. In October of that year, the New York Times warned that the mere prospect of Brownback’s ascent was “redefining” the Republican party. That’s certainly been his goal. Operating on the assumption that change in the states drives change in Washington, Brownback has, over the past four years, slashed income taxes, privatized Medicaid, expanded gun rights, and taken on the state’s teachers’ unions.

Those reforms may have made him a hero to conservatives, but they have also made him a major target this election cycle. For Democrats, the former senator and 2008 presidential candidate is a high-profile scalp whose defeat would galvanize liberals across the country. Implementing his agenda also meant alienating the state’s many moderate Republicans, whom Brownback actively and successfully tried to defeat in the 2012 state legislative elections; for them, picking him off is a matter of simple revenge. Several of them have joined a group of over 100 Republicans to support Brownback’s Democratic challenger, the state’s house minority leader, Paul Davis.

Outside money from both sides has poured into the race, including $2.8 million on advertisements alone even before the end of September. The governor’s tax-cutting agenda has also attracted the attention of liberal journalists, who have denounced him en masse in an attempt to make Kansas an illustration of the catastrophe of conservative governance. “Brownbackistan” is now a Facebook group and the name of a Tumblr account; it is emblazoned on T-shirts and has its own entry in Urban DictionaryPhiladelphia magazine called it “the Koch Bros. experiment with making Kansas stupider, meaner, and more difficult.”

Much of this blowback was prompted by the tax cuts Brownback signed into law in 2012, which brought the personal income-tax rate down to 3.9 percent from 6.45 percent and exempted pass-through income — income earned by individual proprietors — entirely. No state had ever tried exempting pass-through entities.

“It was a totally new, untested thing,” says Lyman Stone, an economist with the Tax Foundation, a conservative tax-policy research organization. “Experts on the left and the right raised the alarm about this policy because we thought it might cause tax distortions, it was hard to predict in terms of the revenue changes.”

Revenues have fallen more than expected, and liberals have rejoiced. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman derided the “charlatans and cranks dictating policy in Kansas.” Vox.com reported that, while “Kansas was supposed to be the GOP’s tax-cut paradise, now it can barely pay its bills.” Another piece on the site explained “How Sam Brownback’s tax cuts backfired.”

At the same time, defenders of the cuts say they’​ve created economic growth. The state’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased since Brownback took office in 2010, and the unemployment rate today stands at 4.9 percent, more than a percentage point lower than the national average. The number of private-sector jobs has increased.

“The fact that revenues were down was kind of like, ‘Duh,’” says Dave Trabert, president of the free-market Kansas Policy Institute. “That was the plan. It was anticipated that revenues would fall off dramatically because we cut taxes dramatically.” That’s true, but Stone points out that the amount of income claimed by sole proprietors has risen dramatically, which suggests that the pass-through exemption is playing a large role in the state’s revenue decline.

“The tax plan has a lot of positive features, including the shift to a positive tax base and a reduction of taxes overall,” says Stone, “but in the short term there are some features of the tax plan, like the exemption for pass-through income, that have not met expectations and that do raise concerns.”

At times, the governor has not helped himself in the face of these challenges. His critics seized on his remark that he was undertaking a “real live experiment” in red-state conservatism. But his supporters argue that Democrats are threatened by the prospect that Kansas will, if Brownback wins reelection this year, come to serve as an example of red-state success. “There’s been a fundamental shift in state policies,” a top Brownback adviser tells me. “If it works, [the Left] is really in trouble.”

The Sunflower State was always going to be a tough place to lead a conservative revolution. It has long been home to a relatively liberal Republican party — “the most liberal Republican party in America outside of the Acela corridor,” says the Brownback strategist. Brownback himself has said Kansas has a “three-party system,” and there’s some truth to that claim. One former GOP chairman, Mark Parkinson, switched parties and went on become to become Kathleen Sebelius’s gubernatorial running mate, and to serve out her term as a Democrat when she joined the Obama administration.

Brownback has never shied away from intra-party battles, and his reforms have exacerbated tensions in the GOP. When he ran for the Senate in 1996, he defeated a more moderate Republican in the primary and, two years ago, when moderates in the state senate voiced their opposition to his tax plan, he went after them in that year’s elections and succeeded in ousting nine of them from office. It is in this context that Republican senator Pat Roberts is locked in a close race with his ill-defined independent challenger, the businessman Greg Orman.

Brownback’s reforms have not made him popular. His approval rating has for months languished in the mid 30s. All of the recent polls show Davis, his opponent, leading by single digits, and the race is considered a toss-up. The Tax Foundation’s Stone notes that it will take time to feel the impact of Brownback’s reforms. “Tax cuts are not a shot of adrenaline to the economy,” he says, “but a structural feature that has an effect in the long run, where you get an overall higher level of growth the next decade.” It will be a boon for Democrats if they can boot Brownback from office before that happens, assuming it’s in the offing.

Brownback, for his part, appears uncowed by the onslaught, and his strategy for victory is becoming clear. Up to this point, all of the focus on Brownback’s record has allowed Davis to avoid staking out his own positions. In their first debate earlier this month, Brownback called Davis “the Nancy Pelosi of Kansas.” Davis represents a house district in eastern Lawrence, home to Kansas University and widely considered more liberal than the rest of the state. While Kansas voters may not be fiery conservatives, they are not Lawrence liberals.

And they are certainly not Obama liberals. As Brownback’s strategist puts it, “If people look at the difference between Brownback, four times elected statewide, two times by double digits, versus Davis, a two-time Obama delegate, I think we know how this movie ends.”

How the movie ends will have broad implications for Brownback’s red-state experiment, whether it’s ultimately held up as an example by liberals, who will draw energy from upending it, or by conservatives, who, as Brownback hopes, will cite it as a model of good governance that ultimately reaches Washington, D.C. 

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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