Can a Democrat Win in Kansas?

There are warning signs indicating Gov. Sam Brownback might be vulnerable, but can Democrats defy the national environment?

National Journal
July 1, 2014, 4:51 p.m.

It seems un­likely that, in Kan­sas of all places, Demo­crats could pull off an up­set vic­tory in 2014. But the state’s tra­di­tion­al GOP lean masks what party op­er­at­ives re­gard as one of their bet­ter, if un­ex­pec­ted, tar­gets as the midterm elec­tions ap­proach: the Kan­sas gov­ernor’s race.

Thanks to a budget crisis and the open re­bel­lion of the some of the party’s mod­er­ate fac­tions, its con­ser­vat­ive gov­ernor, Sam Brown­back, is un­ex­pec­tedly vul­ner­able in his bid for a second term. Most pub­lic polling shows Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Paul Dav­is slightly ahead in the early go­ing.

And while Dav­is re­mains a clear un­der­dog, his cam­paign is con­fid­ent that it can defy a na­tion­al polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment that’s hos­tile to Demo­crats by keep­ing the race fo­cused on state is­sues.

Per­haps a Re­pub­lic­an loss wouldn’t be that that crazy. After all, Pres­id­ent Obama lost three states cur­rently home to com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races — Arkan­sas, Ken­tucky, and West Vir­gin­ia — by wider mar­gins in 2012 than he did Kan­sas. Kan­sas also isn’t the only hy­per-par­tis­an state that could dump an in­cum­bent gov­ernor in line with their views: Demo­crat­ic Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie ap­pears in danger of los­ing in the lib­er­al strong­hold of Hawaii.

Demo­crats also had some re­l­at­ively re­cent suc­cess in 2002 and 2006, when Kath­leen Se­beli­us won two terms as gov­ernor be­fore mov­ing on to head Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. “Kansans are very open,” Brown­back cam­paign man­ager Mark Dugan said of Se­beli­us’s wins. “But I don’t think Kansans will elect someone as lib­er­al as Paul Dav­is with his plans to raise taxes and grow the gov­ern­ment like he wants to do.”

As of Janu­ary both can­did­ates re­por­ted over $1 mil­lion raised and the next round of re­ports, due in late Ju­ly, will shed ad­di­tion­al light on where things stand. One par­tic­u­larly eye-catch­ing poll, a re­cent auto­mated sur­vey from Sur­vey­USA/KSN-TV, even had Brown­back down 7 points to Dav­is, though even Demo­crats doubt that’s really the case.

“It’s a dead heat,” said Kan­sas Demo­crat­ic Party ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Jason Per­key. “We’ve got na­tion­al polling show­ing the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate ahead, but we think it’s a dead heat right now.”

The roots of Brown­back’s troubles are var­ied. Re­cent news has homed in on the his­tor­ic 2012 tax cuts that are now be­ing blamed for sig­ni­fic­ant rev­en­ue short­falls of an es­tim­ated $338 mil­lion for the cur­rent fisc­al year. By some re­ports, the cuts have con­trib­uted to a stall in job growth that runs con­trary to Brown­back’s pledge they would do the op­pos­ite. Moody’s also down­graded the state bond rat­ing in May, cit­ing the dis­par­ity between spend­ing and rev­en­ue and the state’s gen­er­ally slug­gish eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery.

Coupled with a long-stand­ing dis­pute over state edu­ca­tion fund­ing and re­ports that a hand­ful of former Brown­back staffers are un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion by the FBI for lob­by­ing and fun­drais­ing activ­ity, Demo­crats per­ceive a real open­ing for Dav­is to make in­roads among dis­af­fected in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans needed to cobble to­geth­er a win­ning co­ali­tion statewide.

The Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation cer­tainly sees it that way. “Middle-class fam­il­ies have been crushed un­der the weight of the Brown­back ex­per­i­ment,” said com­mit­tee spokes­wo­man Sab­rina Singh. “Brown­back has aban­doned the value of fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity, leav­ing him vul­ner­able this Novem­ber.”

“We’ve got a can­did­ate in Paul Dav­is that’s work­ing his tail off to raise enough money to get out a mes­sage that we think is con­vin­cing,” Per­key said.

Un­like re­cent buzz over the state’s tax cuts and topsy-turvy polls, Per­key’s op­tim­ism isn’t any­thing new. Demo­crats sensed op­por­tun­ity in Kan­sas long be­fore the state’s fisc­al out­look took a turn this year. Brown­back’s ap­prov­al rat­ings first dipped in late 2011 and early 2012, and the Kan­sas Demo­crat­ic Party has been work­ing with Clar­ity Cam­paign Labs for nearly two years in pre­par­a­tion for this year’s race. The D.C.-based tar­get­ing and mod­el­ing firm, headed up by Tom Boni­er, is also work­ing closely this year with the DGA on more tra­di­tion­ally com­pet­it­ive gubernat­ori­al con­tests in states in­clud­ing Michigan and South Car­o­lina.

The party is well aware of the mo­nu­ment­al task ahead. As of Janu­ary 2013 Re­pub­lic­ans had a big re­gis­tra­tion ad­vant­age over Demo­crats, com­pris­ing 44 per­cent of the state’s 1.7 mil­lion re­gistered voters, while Demo­crats made up 25 per­cent and in­de­pend­ents 30 per­cent. In­de­pend­ents showed reas­on­able levels of sup­port for John Kerry and Obama over the last three pres­id­en­tial cycles, but demon­strate the highest drop-off at the polls in non­pres­id­en­tial years, mak­ing statewide vic­tory im­possible without the sup­port of a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans.

A group of more than 70 former Re­pub­lic­an state le­gis­lat­ors formed a group last Decem­ber op­pos­ing Brown­back called Tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans for Com­mon Sense. Among those in­volved are former Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­wo­man Rochelle Chron­is­ter, former Sen. Sheila Frahm, former state Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Steve Mor­ris, three former Re­pub­lic­an House speak­ers, and a hand­ful of oth­ers de­feated by con­ser­vat­ive chal­lengers in the 2012 primar­ies. Clay Bark­er, then the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the state Re­pub­lic­an Party, re­ferred to the group as the “sour grapes caucus,” but Dav­is’s team is work­ing to cul­tiv­ate sim­il­ar sup­port among mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans at the grass­roots level.

“At the party level were fo­cused on one thing: the turnout, and that’s why we’re work­ing so closely with Clar­ity Cam­paign Labs and Tom,” Per­key said.

Per­key says their ef­forts will cen­ter in and around Kan­sas City, Topeka, and Wichita, where nearly two-thirds of the state’s mostly white voters live, but notes His­pan­ics have driv­en nearly 75 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion growth over the past dec­ade. In this vein, the party is op­tim­ist­ic about the po­ten­tial to tar­get His­pan­ics in the state’s south­w­est quad­rant, tra­di­tion­ally a Re­pub­lic­an strong­hold.

Des­pite these plans, Dav­is’s biggest chal­lenge is and will re­main the same as that faced by Demo­crats every­where this year: The only man more un­pop­u­lar than Brown­back in Kan­sas is Obama, and Re­pub­lic­ans are happy to re­mind voters every chance they get.

“Around the coun­try there’s a gen­er­al dis­pleas­ure, dis­con­tent with how things are go­ing,” said Brown­back cam­paign man­ager Mark Dugan. “But what we think is im­port­ant, is it’s about if you want to go the Obama way and in­crease taxes or go the Brown­back way and lower taxes, and right­size the gov­ern­ment.”

Dugan notes Dav­is served as a del­eg­ate to the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tions in Den­ver and Char­lotte in 2008 and 2012, which of­fers plenty of fod­der for his op­pon­ents to la­bel him an “Obama del­eg­ate” or an “Obama Demo­crat.”

“It’s June,” Dugan said. “There hasn’t been a lot of ad­vert­ising; there hasn’t been a lot of voter edu­ca­tion. Once voters un­der­stand those choices we’re very con­fid­ent Gov­ernor Brown­back will win this race.”

In­deed, his­tory may be their guide. A Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port race rank­ing by Charlie Cook on the 1996 Kan­sas Sen­ate con­test — when Brown­back first ran for Sen­ate against Demo­crat Jill Dock­ing, Dav­is’s run­ning mate this year — reads like a pre­view of this year’s gubernat­ori­al race. The sum­mary comes com­plete with mod­er­ate griev­ances against Brown­back for his con­ser­vat­ive re­cord. Like this year’s con­test, un­re­li­able auto­mated and par­tis­an polls swung dra­mat­ic­ally right up to Elec­tion Day, and the race was con­sidered a toss-up to the end, when Brown­back ul­ti­mately de­feated Dock­ing by 10 per­cent­age points.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of the story misid­en­ti­fied Jason Per­key’s role with the state partyy; he is the Kan­sas Demo­crat­ic ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or.  In ad­di­tion, the out­side group of GOP state le­gis­lat­ors was spe­cific­ally formed to op­pose Brown­back, not sup­port Dav­is.

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