Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was in his comfort zone on Thursday, far from Topeka.
He left the turmoil of the Kansas capital — spurred by a revolt within his own Republican Party — and instead headed to a posh resort and convention center outside Washington, D.C.
There he was cheered by Republican activists as he strode onto the red, white and blue stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of the nation’s most prominent conservatives.
“You gotta match the energy from the left with the energy from the right, guys,” Brownback urged the audience. “We’ve gotta have good energy moving forward. We’ve gotta be passionate about what we stand for.”
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Brownback had come to CPAC to promote his conservative Kansas Experiment — an ambitious overhaul of his state’s tax code, welfare rules and Medicaid — as a model for other states. He sat for interviews, signed copies of his 2009 book, “From Power to Purpose,” and posed for selfies with conference attendees. “Thanks for keeping the faith,” he said to one fan, shaking his hand.
But back home in Kansas, Brownback had left behind a legislature rocked by an uprising among members of the Kansas GOP.
“I hope he doesn’t come back,” said Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Republican representative from Overland Park. “I wish him the best. I hope that he remains in Washington and takes a new position and lets us govern here.”
A day earlier Brownback had vetoed a bill that would have repealed most of the Kansas Experiment’s signature tax cuts.
As the governor boarded a plane to Washington on Wednesday, the veto fell three votes shy of being overriden in the state Senate.
A coalition of Republicans and Democrats had joined forces behind the bill, which proposed a $1 billion tax increase over two years to fill the state’s gaping budget hole.
Now the Kansas Legislature is headed into its own short break next week without a clear path forward for a new tax plan.
To some furious lawmakers, the governor’s exit at such a critical moment — and his refusal to accept the legislature’s rejection of his policies — shows how disconnected he is from the political reality in his own state.
“He’s in his own little group and bubble and not listening to Kansans,” said Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Republican from Lenexa who won a seat in the Legislature last summer by campaigning against Brownback’s tax policy.
Brownback defended his trip to the east coast when he vetoed the bill. He noted that the visit also will include the winter meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend, a dinner at the White House on Sunday, and meetings with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Monday.
“This is part of my job, and an important aspect of it,” Brownback said.
At CPAC, Brownback appeared on a panel about how states can be laboratories for change. The other panelists were conservative governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Doug Ducey of Arizona.
It was a congenial group, united by their belief in the need for limited government, fewer regulations and lower taxes.
“I think this is the Final Four here,” joked Walker.
Bevin drew laughs when he handed out red lapel pins with scissors on them to the other governors on the panel, saying they were reminders of the conservative promise to cut bureaucratic red tape and rein in government regulations.
The panel’s moderator, Richard Graber from the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a conservative charity, introduced Brownback as the man who “signed the largest income tax cut in Kansas history.”
Apart from this mention by the moderator, Brownback did not bring up his signature tax cuts, nor was he asked about them, or about his veto a day earlier.
Instead, Brownback focused on his overhaul of welfare in Kansas as an example of a policy that should be prioritized by the conservative movement in other states and nationwide.
Asked after the panel whether he expected more veto fights ahead in Topeka, Brownback said it depends on whether Kansas legislators “decide they want to do things with Republicans or Democrats.”
In an apparent dig at GOP moderates who campaigned against his tax policies, he added, “You know, there were a number of liberals that were elected as Republicans this last time.”
Some in the audience at CPAC were less enthused by Brownback than they had been in past years, when the governor took the stage as a rising star with bold plans to jump start the Kansas economy by slashing income and business taxes.
“For the laws he’s passed and the taxes he’s cut, he’s become a darling (of conservatives) in that sense,” said Howard Wooldridge from Fort Worth, Texas, who is attending his ninth CPAC.
“On the other hand, Kansas is not doing well,” Wooldridge said. “Big debts, big cuts and at some point you know, they say it should be a state responsibility. From what I know, the state is lacking the ability to function well, especially in education, because you cut the taxes and the growth did not come. The classic idea did not happen.”
Wooldridge said he was more impressed with another governor on the panel: Bevin, the newly elected Republican businessman from Kentucky.
Brownback’s star, by contrast, seems faded, he said.
“Brownback is part of the old school,” Wooldridge said. “I’m looking for fresh, principled individuals.”