Johnson County is bound to be the pivotal county in the race for Kansas governor this November.
Paul Davis, the likely Democratic candidate, must peel away enough moderate Republican and independent voters in Johnson County to dent the large right-wing vote that incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback will tally elsewhere, particularly in rural Kansas.
Western Kansas Republicans are among the most socially conservative in the entire country.
That doesn’t mean Davis will need to win a majority of Republicans in Johnson County. He just has to do amazingly well.
The question is, how much is amazingly well?
In the 2002 race between Democrat Kathleen Sebelius and Republican Tim Shallenburger, Sebelius prevailed statewide 53 percent to 45 percent.
Yet, in Johnson County, Sebelius only garnered 46 percent of the vote, in a county where Republicans are more moderate on social issues than elsewhere in Kansas.
So, “amazingly well” might mean around 44-46 percent of the total Johnson County vote.
In Western Kansas, voters wouldn’t get beyond the socially conservative issues to even consider voting for Davis. In Johnson County, Davis needs to focus on the other hot-button issues in that county.
Davis need not remind pro-choice Johnson County Republican women, in particular, of Brownback’s pro-life stance. A savvy politician would not even bring up the controversial subject in Johnson County. He doesn’t need to alienate anti-abortion voters on an issue that may not be their highest priority.
How Davis would capture that 44-46 percent is by plugging away at the education issue, with his claims that Brownback does not support adequate K-12 classroom expenditures or higher education funding. Both have seen cuts under Brownback. If the Legislature responds favorably to a likely court order to spend more on K-12 education, Davis will have to alter his script a little, but the main thrust remains intact.
Davis must also paint Brownback as an extremist, cutting taxes for the wealthy and recklessly promising to eliminate the income tax altogether.
The climb will not be easy.
Registered Republicans in Johnson County outnumber registered Democrats two-to-one, with Republicans representing nearly half the vote. Democrats total 23 percent of the vote. Independents and others, represent about a third.
Brownback, meanwhile, has an advantage that Kathleen Sebelius did not have when she was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.
He has Barack Obama in the White House.
Polls consistently show Obama is very unpopular in Kansas. Brownback will remind voters that Davis was a delegate to the Democratic convention that nominated Obama, and his running mate, Jill Docking, was Kansas chairman for Obama.
More important, Brownback’s campaign will dwell on Obamacare, which nationally has plummeted in popularity, and though I have not seen a poll on Obamacare’s approval ratings in Kansas, one could safely surmise that its unpopularity in Kansas — even among moderates and independents — would cast a dark shadow over a Davis campaign.
In other words, Davis will run on the Brownback record, while Brownback will attempt to nationalize the election.
My good friend, a political pundit, forecasts a Brownback win by a ten-point spread, despite recent polls showing “strong negatives” for Brownback.
His spread is way off the mark.
Although the smart money is on Brownback, Johnson County, which cares so deeply about education in particular, may rise up and give Davis the same kind of mandate it gave to Sebelius. It will be closer than many think.