Topeka, Kan. — Whenever Sam Brownback leaves the governor’s office in the state capitol of Kansas, he faces an iconic image of John Brown. The big mural of the militant abolitionist, painted by John Steuart Curry in the late 1930s, hangs across the hallway from his door. It depicts Brown as a hotheaded bitter clinger, clutching a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, and standing over a scene of Civil War mayhem. His hair sticks up as if on fire, his long beard blows horizontally, and his eyes glow with madness.
“He’s not the kind of guy you’d invite to a barbecue,” jokes Brownback. “But he does represent Kansas. This is a place where people have come to fight about right and wrong.” In Brown’s time, the fight was over slavery. In our time, says Brownback, it’s about the future of self-government: “Are we going to be Europe or are we going to be America again?”
Brownback is hardly the country’s most visible Republican governor: He hasn’t battled with Big Labor, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and he doesn’t appear to be thinking about a presidential run, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, or Rick Perry of Texas. Yet he has quietly become one of the GOP’s leading conservative reformers, pushing for smaller government and lower taxes in the heartland — and he believes that Kansas has an important role to play in America’s coming political contests. “You change America by changing the states,” he says. “We have a red-state model and a blue-state model. It’s going to break one way or the other. One will win and migrate to Washington.” Nothing’s the matter with Kansas that conservative ideas can’t fix, and Brownback intends to make his state a showcase for the country.
Samuel Dale Brownback, now 57, grew up on a farm a few miles outside of Osawatomie, the town where John Brown and his free-state allies clashed with pro-slavery partisans in the 1850s, during a turbulent period known as “Bleeding Kansas.” As a boy, Brownback wanted to be a pig farmer, but he also showed an early talent for politics and began a long climb. In high school, he won a race to become president of the Future Farmers Association of Kansas, and went on to serve as FFA’s national vice president. At Kansas State University, he majored in agricultural economics and was elected president of the student government. By 1986, he was his state’s secretary of agriculture. In 1994, he ran for Congress and was swept into office as a member of the first Republican majority in decades.
Near the end of Brownback’s first term in the House, Senator Bob Dole accepted the GOP nomination for president and resigned his seat. His replacement, appointed by a Republican governor, was Sheila Frahm. Brownback considered Frahm, a pro-choicer, too liberal and challenged her in a primary, to the consternation of the state’s Republican establishment. Brownback beat Frahm, prevailed again in the general election, and completed the final two years of Dole’s term plus two full terms of his own.
One of Brownback’s top aides, first in the House and then the Senate, was Paul Ryan. “Kansas is a big state and we would drive for five or seven hours at a time,” says Representative Ryan. “It gave us a lot of time to talk, and Sam taught me the importance of really caring about people in politics — how to be warm and inclusive and how to be a happy warrior.”
As a senator, Brownback earned a reputation as a social conservative with a strong humanitarian streak — a kind of bleeding-heart right-winger. Raised a Methodist, he converted to Catholicism, championed pro-life causes, and crusaded against sex-trafficking. He cited William Wilberforce, a British politician who fought slavery, as an inspiration. He also favored immigration reforms that put him at odds with much of his party’s base. In 2006, he announced a run for president, thinking that his Kansas roots might give him an advantage among the farmers who vote in the Iowa caucuses. Less than a year later, however, he dropped out, following a bad result at the Iowa Straw Poll. Brownback might have enjoyed a comfortable career in the Senate, but he’d pledged to serve just two full terms. So he came home to Kansas and ran for governor instead. He won with 63 percent of the vote.
#page#When he entered office in 2011, Brownback inherited a financial mess — a budget deficit, a poor economy, and a state mired in a long demographic decline. Today, Brownback carries around a packet of more than two dozen pages of charts and graphs. He likes to show it off, and its contents aren’t all good news. The first page displays a line heading downward, revealing a steady loss of population in Kansas relative to the rest of the country. In 1970, Kansas was the nation’s 28th most populous state. By 2010, it had slipped to 33rd, and it’s projected to fall to 35th by 2020. “You don’t hire a coach to manage decline,” says Brownback. Then he points to the population chart. “I want to change that line.”
The governor thinks he can do it through better public policy. Several of his early initiatives were small-ball, good-government maneuvers: He merged the state’s department of transportation with its turnpike authority and folded the juvenile-justice system into the corrections department, with an eye toward reducing overhead. He also reformed judicial selection, halting a peculiar practice in which lawyers held more sway than public officials in choosing the state’s appeals-court judges — a process that had blocked conservatives from serious consideration.
Yet Brownback had big ideas as well. Shortly after taking office, he began a push to abolish the state’s income tax. “When you’re a presidential candidate, you’re a political tourist. You see different policy environments,” he says. A visit to the border of Iowa and South Dakota impressed him. “Why is stuff new in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and older in Sioux City, Iowa?” he asks. “The answer is that there’s no income tax in South Dakota, so that’s where people go to live.” He rattles off similar examples. “The California and Texas models just scream out,” he says. “They’re mega states, but California is on its knees and Texas is soaring.” Brownback would like Kansas to join South Dakota and Texas by becoming the eighth state without an individual income tax.
He may yet have his way. In June, the governor signed legislation to drop the top individual rate in Kansas to 3.9 percent by 2018, down from 6.45 percent when he took office. It will fall further, based on a formula, if the state meets certain revenue requirements. In time it could hit zero. To compensate, Brownback had to lock in the sales tax at 6.15 percent, a hike compared with three years ago, when it was 5.7 percent, but lower than 6.3 percent, a rate that his predecessor, a Democrat, had sold as a “temporary” measure during a budget crunch.
“We’re moving from being a high-tax state to a low-tax state,” says Brownback. “If we can get our taxes down, we’ll stop the migration out of Kansas.” He points to another chart in his packet, from a July release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows employment trends in the Kansas City area, which has seen job growth on the Kansas side of the border and stagnation on the Missouri side. “When you see evidence like this, you realize how much tax policy matters,” says Brownback. Things won’t be getting any easier for Missouri: On September 11, its Republican-led legislature failed to override Democratic governor Jay Nixon’s veto of a tax-cut bill. “That’s Missouri’s choice — and it’s going to send a message that Missouri wants higher taxes than Kansas,” says Brownback. “People will vote with their feet.”
Other governors haven’t fared as well as Brownback in trying to shift their states away from taxing productivity and toward taxing consumption. Earlier this year, Louisiana’s Jindal scrapped a plan to eliminate the state income tax and replace it with higher sales taxes. In Nebraska, a similar proposal by Republican governor Dave Heineman has stalled in the legislature.
“There’s nothing magical or even inventive about what we’re doing,” says Brownback. “But change is hard. People don’t like it, even if what they have isn’t working. Change is easy to vilify. I think it comes down to an inherent distrust of government and the fear that something new won’t work.”
Brownback, in fact, faced fierce resistance to tax cuts from within his own party. Even though Kansas votes for Republican presidential candidates and the GOP dominates the state legislature, conservatives often have felt on the outs. “We had a three-party system here, with Democrats and liberal Republicans forming a parliamentary majority that consistently voted for more taxes and bigger government,” says Brownback.
#page#Nobody personifies the cozy relationship between Democrats and liberal Republicans in Kansas better than Mark Parkinson. He was chairman of the state GOP in 2002, when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was elected governor. Four years later, however, he quit the Republicans and joined Sebelius on the Democratic ticket as her running mate, winning election as lieutenant governor. (He replaced the outgoing John Moore, another Republican-turned-Democrat.) When Sebelius left Kansas to become secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration, Parkinson finished her term, remaining a Democrat the whole time.
“What we had was perfidy within the Republican party,” says David Kensinger, who managed Brownback’s winning campaign in 2010. That year, tea-party activism helped conservatives gain strength in the state house, mainly at the expense of Democrats. Yet the state senate remained a preserve of liberal Republicans — and an obstacle to Brownback’s full agenda. So Kensinger focused on defeating them in the 2012 primaries. When they were over, conservative challengers had ousted nine GOP incumbents, including senate president Steve Morris, who was last seen complaining to the Huffington Post in September that conservatives had “hijacked” the Kansas GOP. “We’re more of a traditional Republican party now,” says Brownback. “We’re dominated by conservatives and we have a moderate wing and a good section of libertarianism. I’m driving down the middle of the right side of the road.”
Nearly two years ago, President Obama traveled to Kansas — and to Osawatomie in particular — to deliver a left-wing barnburner of a speech. Osawatomie is associated not just with John Brown, but also with Theodore Roosevelt, who went there in 1910 to give his hyper-progressive “New Nationalism” speech. Obama wanted to invoke the memory of Roosevelt, and the New York Times called Obama’s address “his most pointed appeal yet for a strong governmental role through tax and regulation,” infused “with the moralistic language that has emerged in the Occupy protests around the nation.” Brownback didn’t hear Obama in person: He learned of the visit only a few days before, and it conflicted with a scheduled event in Wichita. “I don’t think the White House wanted me there anyway,” says Brownback. “I’ve been pretty critical of this administration.” When the governor read the speech later, however, its tone surprised him. “The president was just trying to stoke passions,” he says. “The speech had nothing to do with creating the best opportunities for the most people in America.”
Brownback doesn’t think anything has changed since then. “At this point in an economic recovery, we ought to be off like a rocket ship and rising. But we’re having trouble hitting take-off speed,” he says. The problem is Obamacare: “It’s a substantial drag on the economy. People aren’t hiring or they’re hiring part time because they don’t know the impact.” Asked about conservative attempts in Washington to defund the health-care law, he points out that Republicans didn’t fare too well during the shutdown controversies of the Clinton years, when he was in Congress. He sticks to the big picture: “I’m not familiar with a single situation of putting more of the federal government into something and the product getting cheaper. The lesson is entirely the other way. With airlines, railroads, and telephones, when we got government out of the way, everything became better and cheaper.”
Democrats crow that Brownback will be vulnerable next year, when he pursues reelection. In February, a survey by Public Policy Polling found that he had an approval rating of only 37 percent, with 52 percent of voters disapproving of his tenure. Even so, Brownback led against each of the six prospective Democratic candidates that PPP tested. Since then, all six have declined to run, suggesting that they think Brownback will be tough to beat. On September 17, state-house minority leader Paul Davis stepped forward, announcing that he’d take on the tax-slashing governor.
So Brownback heads into 2014 as a favorite. Would he consider a new run for the White House in 2016, telling the story of a “Kansas comeback” fueled by tax cuts? Brownback won’t rule it out, though it seems like a stretch. He’s a better bet for 2020, after eight years in Topeka and when he turns 64 — assuming there’s a Democrat in the Oval Office. Brownback hopes that before he’s finished as governor, he’s working with a fellow-Republican chief executive. “Our country is at an inflection point, and the next president will have a real shot at pursuing a federalized model of government,” he says. “Washington is going to have to pay attention to what we’re doing out here in America.”