Election nights usually end with congratulations, but Republican Sam Brownback’s razor-thin victory in Kansas calls out for a caution. Brownback should not interpret Tuesday’s results as a mandate for his “red state model” of governance. Instead, he should see his close call as a message to change course.
The Republican governor’s flailing tax-cut experiment and his refusal to seek consensus turned his bid for re-election into the fight of his political life. In unofficial results, he defeated Democrat Paul Davis, the moderate House minority leader, by fewer than 20,000 votes. In heavily Republican Kansas, that’s as much as a rebuff as one can receive in a victory.
In the end, Brownback joined a long list of GOP victors in Kansas, Missouri and nationwide. Pat Roberts survived a scare from independent Greg Orman to hold on to his U.S. Senate seat from Kansas. The GOP picked up a half dozen Senate seats, and will be in the majority beginning in January.
But Brownback’s near-defeat in one of America’s reddest states points out the dangers of conservative overreach. He survived by misleading voters about the state’s finances and benefiting from a torrent of outside money financing some of the ugliest ads and personal attacks that Kansas has seen in some time. His attempt to link his opponent to a horrific murder case was especially craven, and it signaled the governor’s eagerness to detract attention from the budget picture.
The state that elected Brownback to a second term with not quite 50 percent of the vote is restive, fearful and deeply divided. If he cares about Kansas as much as he claims he does, the governor must take a more conciliatory approach.
He needs to listen to people beyond the circle of ideologues who believe that deep tax cuts are the road to prosperity. He must hear the voices of the families who are deeply afraid of the changes he has made to the state’s Medicaid program.
Above all, Brownback must start being honest about the state’s finances.
If this election has taught him anything, it is that Kansans deeply value their public schools. The governor has to stop pretending that he can continue to cut taxes for the wealthy and still fund schools and universities adequately.
Brownback’s deep and poorly targeted tax cuts have caused income tax revenues to tumble over the past two years. An anticipated $351 million budget shortfall will be re-evaluated by a team of analysts on Monday, and is expected to grow larger.
The victorious governor will likely begin his second term by cutting services. Without rolling back the income tax cuts or finding a new source of revenue, Kansas faces the prospect of serious pain for the foreseeable future.
In the Senate race, Roberts built his victory by successfully making strong appeals to the Republican base in Kansas. He pointed out over and over that a vote for him was a vote against the Obama agenda and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Kansans bought into that pervasive logic, and the GOP easily won control of the Senate.
Now that Roberts has won, what version of him will we see in Washington?
He veered hard right in the GOP primary to beat Milton Wolf. He also imported tea party favorites Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin to stump for him.
With his return to Congress, Roberts likely will remain a staunchly negative vote on spending issues. He will have the opportunity to vote with fellow GOP senators to approve radical House-passed bills on a variety of issues, bills that likely will face Obama vetoes, guaranteeing even more gridlock in the Capitol.