Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative revolution triumphed Tuesday when he defeated Democratic upstart Paul Davis, becoming only the second Republican governor in Kansas to win re-election in 50 years.
Overcoming his slumping popularity and a philosophical split in his party, Brownback returns to the governor’s mansion for a second term promising to mold Kansas into a red-state model for the country.
Even with an approval rating hovering under 50 percent, Brownback prevailed over Davis, the House minority leader from Lawrence. Although returns were not complete, with 93 percent of precincts reporting, Brownback led by more than 28,000 votes, with 50 percent of the vote. Davis was at 46 percent. Libertarian Keen Umbehr had 4 percent.
“What a night,” Brownback shouted as he took the podium at a Topeka hotel to celebrate his victory with hundreds of supporters. “I feel like the end of the 15th round of a Rocky match.”
He thanked Kansans for “the privilege to serve.”
“Ideas and direction do matter,” he said. “I think that’s what the people of the state of Kansas ... said tonight.”
Davis, whose supporters gathered Tuesday in Lawrence, conceded defeat in a call to Brownback before 11 p.m.
Soon afterward, he told supporters he wanted all Kansans to rally around Brownback.
“This campaign was never about us,” Davis said. “It was always about Kansas.”
Brownback prevailed despite escalating criticism over deep income tax cuts that he enacted and that are projected to leave the state with massive budget deficits.
He may enter his second term forced to make midyear budget cuts to account for reduced revenues brought about by slashing income taxes. Fiscal analysts believe that by 2016, the state will be facing a deficit exceeding $200 million.
After he addressed his supporters, Brownback told The Star he looked forward to the next four years.
“We’ve done the hard things,” he said. “Now we can do the things that we want to do. We can invest in education growth because we’ve made the tough decisions. Now we can work on issues like poverty and water because we’ve made the tough choices.”
The win, experts said, clears the way for Brownback to pursue those goals and more, such as further income tax cuts, more reductions in state spending, expansion of school choice and limits to state regulations on business. He might even get more aggressive on social issues.
“Brownback will take this as confirmation that he is steering the state in the correct direction. Indeed, the fact that he has won suggests the voters agree,” said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Auburn University who has written a book on Kansas politics. “He will even move even more directly to implementing his red-state vision.”
But other experts warned that Brownback should be cautious in overstating what Tuesday’s vote meant. Struggling to defeat a Democrat in a comfortable climate for Republicans raises questions about how much voters really support his dramatic income tax cuts and conservative philosophy.
“It will probably give a lot of Republicans nationwide pause,” said University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire.
“It’s not that they don’t want to push the same conservative policies, but they might not want to take them to an extreme.”
Other experts believe that Brownback benefited from Kansas being such a deeply Republican state and outside groups spending millions to tarnish Davis’ image with a negative ad campaign.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a vote of confidence in his agenda, although it will be read that way,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report. “Republicans did a good job making Paul Davis unacceptable.”
From the outset, Brownback promised to govern to the fullest. And that he did — at the expense of piling up political enemies across the state.
No governor in nearly 40 years reorganized state government as much as Brownback, combining agencies and eliminating thousands of state jobs.
He dramatically cut income taxes at the risk of putting state services in jeopardy. He enacted restrictions making Kansas one of the toughest places to get an abortion. He slashed the public assistance rolls. He privatized the state’s Medicaid system over the objections of advocates for the developmentally disabled.
Funding for the arts and public broadcasting was cut and, at one point, almost abolished. He tried gaining more control over judicial appointments. And he eliminated some job protections for teachers.
Two years ago, Brownback helped defeat a coalition of moderate Republican senators who opposed his policies, turning the Legislature’s upper chamber more in his favor.
The controversies Brownback engendered over the years were reflected in polling that showed his popularity sagging with the electorate.
He arrived at the capitol in Janurary 2011 fresh off a victory in which he captured 63 percent of the vote over a Democratic state senator. Within months, as his agenda emerged, the luster started to wear off the governor.
Polling as early as three months into his term showed him vulnerable, with his approval rating hovering at 50 percent. By June 2011, it was 46 percent. His favorable rating was still about 45 percent weeks before the election.
Brownback’s sagging approval rating presented Davis with a golden opportunity that he failed to exploit, said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
“Davis squandered a phenomenal opportunity,” Rackaway said. “The Davis campaign had this within their grasp and lost it.”
Rackaway argued that Davis didn’t do enough to build his own image, relying more heavily on criticizing the governor and his policies.
Indeed, Davis shied away from offering many specific policy proposals, including whether he wanted an outright repeal of the Brownback tax cuts. He only said he wanted to freeze some of the tax cuts and create a commission to examine state tax policy.
As a result, the Democrat wasn’t able to withstand the withering assault from outside groups supporting Brownback. They painted the lawmaker as the “liberal from Lawrence” who supported higher taxes.
But even with the win, Rackaway said Brownback has some fence mending to do across Kansas if he wants to be effective the next four years.
“It is no mandate for the governor and his policies,” Rackaway said. “There is a lot of trepidation, a lot of ambivalence. There is no pumping out your chest with this kind of win.”