Steve Rose

To beat Sam Brownback, Paul Davis has to escape President Obama

Updated: 2013-09-01T15:11:50Z


Special to The Star

Pretend for a moment you are a very lonely Democratic leader in one of the reddest states in America. Pretend you have decided to run for governor. Pretend your name is Paul Davis.

Paul who?

That’s the first problem.

No prominent Democrat — are there any in Kansas? — has indicated an interest in running for governor. Davis may be it.

Even though he is the minority leader in the Kansas House, the 41-year-old attorney is not known much outside his hometown of Lawrence, the liberal bastion of Kansas. He has been a state representative since 2003 and minority leader since 2009.

But that doesn’t mean Davis is out to lunch. He is up against a very unpopular governor, Sam Brownback.

Public Policy Polling in February released its findings that Brownback has an approval rating of only 37 percent. Said the polling firm: “Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is unpopular and potentially vulnerable heading into his 2014 re-election effort….”

In the same poll, it found Brownback’s plan to phase out the state income tax also received only a 37 percent approval.

So, Davis is likely to run a campaign on, “Brownback has cut taxes for the wealthy, and now middle-class and poor Kansans will feel the burden. And he promises no income taxes, if he is re-elected.”

Sound familiar? It’s similar to the theme that elected Barack Obama president.

Brownback, in the meantime, with the help of the billionaire Koch brothers of Wichita, will probably use the same tactics used against moderate Republicans running for the Legislature: tie them to Barack Obama.

How unpopular is Obama in Kansas?

Well, he did receive only 38 percent of the Kansas vote in the last election in 2012. He is clearly unpopular across the state, except perhaps in Lawrence.

Paul Davis has to accomplish three big feats, besides gaining name recognition, if he is to upset Brownback.

First, he somehow has to distance himself from Obama. That won’t be easy. Millions of dollars will be spent joining the two at the hip.

Second, he has to prove he is not nearly as liberal as he will be painted. Millions will be spent attacking the tax-and-spend “Lawrence liberal,” which Davis must refute aggressively.

Third, and most important, Davis will have to attract enough moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters in a state where the numbers are stacked against him.

Republican registered voters are just under half of registered voters, while Democrats are a fourth, and unaffiliated are just over a fourth.

Davis knows the importance of attracting moderate Republicans.

He has formed his campaign committee and named former State Rep. William Kassebaum — the moderate Republican son of former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker — as his treasurer. You can bet he will try to enlist a prominent Republican as his running mate, as Democrat Kathleen Sebelius did when she tapped Republican Mark Parkinson.

For a Democrat to be elected governor in Kansas is not that difficult. Since Democrat George Docking was elected in 1957, there have been six Democrats and six Republicans elected governor.

For a Democrat to be elected governor of Kansas in these times, however, seems almost impossible, given that every elected statewide position is held by a Republican, and both chambers of the Legislature are very Republican. There could not be much more red than there is in Kansas today. Voters have clearly moved to the right.

It would be one of the great upsets in modern Kansas history if Davis could unseat Sam Brownback, who is armed with Koch brothers’ millions.

However, there may enough moderate Republicans who have had enough to make such an upset happen.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to

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