Kansas really might re-elect Sam Brownback: How the wingnut could pull it off

Polls show Dem Paul Davis' clear lead has vanished. Why it could be What's the Matter with Kansas all over again

Published October 16, 2014 2:20PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Dave Kaup)
(Reuters/Dave Kaup)

By all objective accounts, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s supply-side economic experiment has been a disaster. State revenue plummeted by $700 million in the wake of Brownback’s tax cuts for the wealthy, while lower-income Kansans’ taxes have actually gone up thanks to Brownback’s sales tax increase. Kansas’ job growth has badly lagged the rest of the nation’s, education funding has been slashed, and the state’s credit rating has been downgraded. But Kansas voters might shrug their collective shoulders and re-elect Brownback anyway.

While Democratic challenger Paul Davis has led Brownback in most polls this cycle, Davis’ lead has vanished less than three weeks before voters head to the polls. The first sign that Brownback had rebounded came with a CNN poll last week; the survey showed a tied race, with both candidates at 49 percent. That poll was soon followed by a Fox News poll in which Brownback had catapulted to a six point lead, 46 to 40 percent; Fox’s previous poll in the state had given Davis a four point edge. This week, Public Policy Polling confirmed that Davis’ advantage had eroded, showing a statistical tie among likely voters after its previous poll found Davis ahead by five points. RealClearPolitics’ polling average now gives Brownback a 0.6 point lead. That’s a statistically insignificant edge, and it’s a remarkably weak position for a GOP incumbent in Kansas amid a midterm climate that favors the Republicans. Yet it’s a very real possibility that Brownback, after months of looking like a near-certain loser, could actually pull off a win.

But why? It certainly isn’t because the state’s fiscal health has improved. Despite the governor’s promises that his tax cuts will start working their magic any day now, figures released earlier this month show that the state’s revenue flow continues to fall short of projections.

If Brownback prevails, it will likely be thanks to the phenomenon my colleague Thomas Frank described in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Even as his policies wreak havoc on the state, Brownback is counting on cultural populism to propel him to victory, voters’ economic interests be damned.

Take Brownback’s defense of his supply-side agenda. Last week, the governor assured CBN’s David Brody that his tax cuts really would start working soon, but he complained that pointy-headed liberal elites and the mainstream media are so down on his rock-ribbed state that they’re committed to pushing the narrative that his economic experiment has failed.

"I think they so desperately want what’s happening in this state to fail that they’re shopping for a factual setting to back that up because it’s working," Brownback said. The governor went on to charge that people on the left  “want this model to fail so bad that they can't wait for it to and they just want to get me electorally before we get on through this and prove that this is working."

Who are you going to believe -- your good and godly governor, or those egghead elitists sneering down at Kansas hayseeds?

Meanwhile, while the social issues that conservative Kansas Republicans have typically seized upon to win over downscale voters haven’t been central to the race, Brownback isn’t letting voters forget that he’s a socially conservative scold. His campaign pounced on a recent report that 16 years ago, Davis was present at a strip club where he received a lap dance. The Kansas GOP responded to the report by asking whether Davis is “fit to govern.” And Brownback, who as a U.S. senator co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has also reinserted himself into the national marriage equality debate. When the Supreme Court recently let stand a series of lower court rulings in favor of marriage equality, Brownback vowed to continue defending Kansas’ anti-marriage amendment, no matter what the cultural and legal elite might think. While Davis boasts a pro-LGBT state House record and has been endorsed by Equality Kansas, he has skirted the marriage equality issue during his campaign.

Perhaps the surest sign that Kansas Democrats are increasingly nervous about a second Brownback term came yesterday, when Davis announced the support of more than 500 breakaway Republicans. Earlier this year, Davis had unveiled a list of 100 current and former GOP politicians in the state who were supporting his campaign. With Davis riding high in the polls, the announcement looked like another sign of a pro-Davis juggernaut. Now, however, with the polls no longer looking as favorable, the announcement that even more Republicans support Davis seems like an attempt to alter the race’s narrative.

Of course, moderate Republicans’ dissatisfaction with Brownback may yet help Democrats capture the governor’s mansion. And with most polls showing an exceedingly close contest, the race could easily go either way. But the national climate and Kansas’ political dynamics may just be enough to give Brownback another four years to wreck the state.

By Luke Brinker

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