Democratic lawmaker Paul Davis and history stand between Gov. Sam Brownback and a second term of decidedly conservative rule.
Brownback would be just the second Republican governor — Bill Graves was the last in 1998 — to win re-election in Kansas in the last 50 years.
The outcome likely turns on whether voter attention turns more toward the challenger or on the incumbent. Each, analysts agree, wants the discussion to be about the other guy.
Struggling to gain his political stride, Brownback is firing up a campaign portraying the House minority leader as a liberal foot soldier for President Barack Obama.
Davis, little-known but ahead in most polls, aims to make the race a referendum on whether Brownback is too conservative even for reliably Republican Kansas.
So far, Brownback mostly has been on the defensive. He’s confronted questions about plummeting revenues caused by income tax cuts and a federal investigation into the lobbying activities of his associates.
“It could be a very tight race, and there really is a possibility the governor could be defeated,” said Wichita State political science professor Ken Ciboski.
Brownback is coming off a lackluster primary win over a little-known challenger who got 37 percent of the vote. Jennifer Winn spent just $13,600 on a campaign focused on legalizing marijuana and ending jail time for nonviolent drug offenders — positions sure to flop with Kansas Republicans.
The outlook dimmed more the day after the primary last week. As Brownback celebrated victory, Standard & Poor’s became the second rating agency since April to downgrade the state’s credit rating because of falling revenues caused by the tax cuts the governor signed into law.
With the primary out of the way, Brownback is expected to push back hard with help from outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity, founded and partly funded by Wichita industrialists Charles and David Koch.
“With not a lot for him to tout, he’s going to have to soften Davis up,” said Fort Hays State political scientist Chapman Rackaway.
The Republican Governors Association started laying the groundwork with a new television ad linking Davis to the president, who received just 38 percent of the vote in Kansas against Mitt Romney in 2012.
Political scientists across the state believe Brownback is in a precarious position. They say the governor needs to make this race about Davis — “the liberal lawyer from Lawrence” — and keep the debate away from his policies.
“The Brownback people have got to be fretting,” said Washburn University political science professor Mark Peterson. “They’ve got to make a campaign on their terms. If they are not successful in controlling the argument and the discourse between now and November, they are at serious risk.”
Brownback started framing the debate before primary night was over.
“I’m a Reagan-style Republican and my opponent, Paul Davis, is an Obama-style Democrat,” Brownback said. “And that’s just a different policy choice. And you’ll get to see that played out in the election this fall.”
Davis said he has no plans to play defense in this election, although he already fields questions about where he differs from the president.
“(Brownback) doesn’t want a campaign that’s about his record as governor,” Davis said. “He’s going to try to make this into some sort of national referendum, and I don’t believe Kansans are going to fall for that.”
A day after the primary, Davis appeared on MSNBC. National political reporter Chuck Todd pointedly asked Davis where he disagreed with the president.
Davis said that during his 11 years in the Legislature he brought Democrats and Republicans together, unlike the president who’s struggled to build bipartisan consensus on many issues.
Kansas Republicans have employed Obama’s unpopularity — especially antipathy toward the Affordable Care Act — to their advantage . They are gearing up to do it again.
“A lot of people don’t know where the dividing line is between federal and state,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “If Obama is unpopular, all Democrats are unpopular.”
Brownback campaign manager Mark Dugan thinks Obama is a fair benchmark to use in the governor’s race.
“The Obama comparison is valuable,” he said, “because Kansans understand what Obama is for.”
The Brownback camp is crafting an image of Davis as a far-out liberal who opposed a new coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, opposed the concealed carry of firearms and embraced tax increases.
The campaign points to votes Davis made in 2003 and 2004 to raise the sales tax and add a surcharge to the income tax. In both cases, part of the tax proceeds would have paid for increased school funding.
“Paul Davis will govern from the left just like he legislated from the left,” Dugan said.
The Davis campaign said those tax votes reflected the Democrat’s commitment to education.
“Paul believes we have a moral and constitutional obligation to fund our schools and give our kids the best education possible,” spokesman Chris Pumpelly said.
Pumpelly shrugged off the liberal label.
“Sam Brownback and his allies,” he said, “will say just about anything to distract Kansans from his dismal record.”
While Democrats have been emboldened by Brownback’s underwhelming primary performance, the governor’s campaign isn’t bothered by the results.
“We feel very good coming out of the primary election,” Dugan said.
Many observers expect the campaign to be expensive and ugly as each candidate tries to get the upper hand in the messaging war. Brownback has almost $2.4 million ready to spend. Davis has about $1.3 million in the bank.
“It’s going to be,” Peterson said, “a loud, noisy and, in some respects, not a particularly uplifting campaign.”
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