It’s becoming clear the easily distracted gaze of the political world will turn to Kansas this fall, particularly on its race for governor.
Major national publications have already written stories about the expected Sam Brownback-Paul Davis matchup. Niche publications and websites on the left and the right are scrutinizing the race and the state’s economic record. Cable shows and talk radio are weighing in.
Local newspapers, and TV newsrooms that still care, are also on the case.
We’ve been tough on Brownback in this column, on occasion, but not today. He deserves enormous credit for his political approach: He told Kansans he would govern as a conservative, and he has. No half measures, no waffling, no woulda coulda shoulda. He cut taxes, turned down expanded Medicaid and tightened the state’s abortion rules.
He’s defended those decisions in clear, unambiguous terms. He’s invited reporters and analysts to examine the evidence and hold him accountable for the results.
Rick Santorum, a well-known social conservative, campaigned for the governor this week. That’s a clear signal to all the state’s voters.
Brownback, in other words, is precisely the kind of politician conservative Republicans want to nominate for president in 2016.
The GOP split between populist conservatives and more moderate Wall Street Republicans has been unsettled for 50 years. It’s been papered over — Ronald Reagan was able to unite the party’s separate wings — but Republicans have never really decided if they win with a broad-based centrist message or with a purer, more conservative approach.
Brownback will provide some answers this year. He’ll start the fall campaign with bedrock GOP conservatives, about 35 percent of the electorate. Davis will get Democratic votes, also about 35 percent of the state.
Where will the remaining 30 percent go? Will moderates and independents endorse Brownback’s low-tax vision? Or are they more worried about bigger classrooms and a drop in the state’s credit rating?
If Brownback wins, national Republicans will use the victory as evidence that sharp conservatives can thrive in 2016. If he loses in a state as deeply red as Kansas, party bigwigs will probably draw the opposite conclusion.
So there’s much at stake in November — for Brownback, whose political future probably hinges on the results, and for his party, which is desperate to win the White House two years from now.
Which is why reporters from around the nation will soon be on that turnpike, headed to a town near you.