Sam Brownback always knew his time as Kansas governor would be short.
So he promised to govern to the fullest.
“We have been placed here for a reason and a short season,” Brownback said at his 2011 inauguration. “Let us make the most of it.”
And that he has — at a political price that could cost him a second term.
For four years, Brownback has governed fearlessly while steamrolling his political opposition along the way.
But with each policy victory he scored, the number of vanquished opponents piled up. Eventually, the governor risked building a critical mass of opposition that could lead to his undoing.
“You step on enough toes, and more and more people are going to drop out of your coalition,” said Ohio State political science professor John Mueller.
Brownback has slashed income taxes, cut thousands off welfare, curbed abortion rights, tried gaining control of judicial appointments and made a failed attempt to cut arts funding.
When the moderate wing of his party stood in the way, Brownback successfully campaigned for conservatives more in step with his political philosophy so he could exert a tighter grip on the statehouse.
While Brownback held sway during his first term, he has angered various factions across the state and even prompted protests at the Capitol.
Teachers angry over losing some job protections. Lawyers upset over attempts to change the way judges are selected. Worried families who opposed efforts to move the developmentally disabled into managed care.
Brownback’s agenda was bound to offend some voters, especially since his signature income tax cuts have been blamed for bleeding the state treasury.
“He’s been able to pretty much get what he wants,” said University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire. “At some point you own those policies, and if they don’t work out as you advertised, then there’s bound to be some voter backlash.”
Now, Brownback finds himself in an unexpected slugfest with lawmaker Paul Davis, the House minority leader from Lawrence and the Democratic nominee for governor.
Most of the electorate doesn’t know much about Davis yet. But voters appear to be leaning against Brownback, especially after the state’s credit rating was downgraded partly because of income tax cuts he signed into law.
The state missed its revenue estimates by more than $300 million for the fiscal year ending on June 30, fueling criticism that the tax cuts will eventually put vital state services on the chopping block.
“Being a bold leader will come back to bite you if the bold things you do are things that voters don’t like,” said Tom Jensen, director at Public Policy Polling, which has been surveying Kansas voters.
Polls have shown Brownback losing the tax debate. An August survey by Rasmussen Reports showed that likely voters trusted Davis more with taxes than Brownback. Almost half the people polled in a separate survey in February didn’t believe the governor’s tax plan was working.
Overall, Brownback has been trailing in most polls, sometimes by as much as 10 percentage points. The governor’s private polling, in contrast, shows a dead heat.
Brownback is mounting a vigorous campaign defending his tax cuts, emphasizing job creation over falling state revenues.
The governor acknowledged that he’s running into headwinds because he has pushed for so many changes.
“It makes re-elections more difficult because you are trying to get things done to move in a new direction,” Brownback said.
The governor said he needed to make big moves to get the state growing in the aftermath of the recession.
“If you’re not growing,” he said, “we have a large problem.”
He says voters ultimately will line up behind him when they’ve compared him with Davis, someone the governor says represents higher taxes and bigger government.
But some voters who supported the governor in 2010 think his tax policy is going to end up hurting the state in the long term.
Republican Clarence Roeder of Leawood is among those wavering in his support for Brownback, partly because of the tax changes.
“He is well-intentioned and I think he is a good man, but I think he has the wrong formula for Kansas,” Roeder said. “I’m afraid we are headed to some really difficult times with money.”
The governor’s political problems are not limited to tax policy.
He created a furor in 2011 when he cut $700,000 for the arts, a decision that later cost the state more than $1 million in funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Brownback eventually restored the state money, and matching grants later followed. But as little a sum as it was in the context of the state budget, the issue was emotionally charged. Critics accused the governor of not understanding how the arts play a role in the economic development of the state. The governor’s decision still stings today.
Julie Britton of Atwood, Kan., is a Republican who voted for Brownback in 2010 but won’t this year. She is a former board member of an arts group that lost about $9,000 when Brownback cut arts funding.
Britton supported Brownback because she thought he would help stabilize the state economy amid the Great Recession. The governor went too far, she said.
“I was looking for someone who had some creative ways for restructuring things instead of just completely killing entities and completely turning things upside down,” she said.
Republican Effie Bradley should be the kind of slam-dunk vote that Brownback could count on this year. The Lake Quivira resident attends church every Sunday and is a fan of conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
Yet she is angry about the Brownback administration’s decision to move Medicaid services for the developmentally disabled into a managed-care program run by private insurers.
With a sister who has Down syndrome, Bradley was among the hundreds who rallied at the Capitol last year to protest the administration’s decision to move the developmentally disabled into managed care, known as KanCare.
She and many others argued that private insurers wouldn’t understand the special living needs of the developmentally disabled. She thought the Brownback administration ignored her pleas.
“Why fix something that’s not totally and completely broken,” she said, “when you’ve got lots of other things in the state that are totally and completely broken?”
Bradley won’t go rogue and vote Democrat. But she may not cast a ballot for a governor whom she agrees with on many issues, including tax cuts.
“He certainly succeeded in alienating me, and I’m his natural constituent,” Bradley said. “I feel like the Democrats who are disillusioned in Obama.”
A record to judge
Much of the pushback against Brownback is a natural evolution of trying to change government, said state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.
Brownback, he said, has shaken up the Kansas power structure and that has met blowback from established political leaders with a different approach to governing. In the end, he said, Brownback wins.
“When you make changes and shake up an organization, people are going to be offended because they have to do things differently,” Schwab said.
“He’s not going to lose this election because of what he’s done. He’s going to win the election because of what he’s done.”
Experts say political leaders can govern ambitiously and still get re-elected, pointing to Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies to resurrect the country from the depth of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was re-elected three times.
“He did a lot of stuff,” Mueller said, “and that probably helped him considerably because he seemed to be doing something.”
In that sense, Brownback may still have room for building back the coalition he needs to win a second term, experts said.
But Squire, the political scientist, cautions that Brownback may face what he called a “coalition of the minorities” where enough angry voters from separate constituencies form a mass that could threaten his re-election prospects.
“Each of these grievances builds, and at some point you’ve irritated enough people where you’ve put your political future at risk,” he said.
“Brownback has accomplished a lot of conservative Republican goals, and because of that there are a lot of people — even in Kansas — who disagree with some of those things,” Squire said. “It can come back to haunt you.”