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
Karyn Bruggeman
Add to Briefcase
Karyn Bruggeman
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.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Drops Ultimatum on Healthcare
10 hours ago

"President Trump delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans on Thursday night: Vote to approve the measure to overhaul the nation’s health-care system on the House floor Friday, or reject it and the president will move on to his other legislative priorities." Passage remains far from certain, however, even with a 3pm Friday vote scheduled.

Trump’s SEC Chair Nominee Faces Tough Questioning
16 hours ago

Jay Clayton, Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, was grilled today during his hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. In question were his extensive ties to Wall Street and his potential conflicts of interest. During his hearing, Clayton promised he would not show favoritism to anyone. Clayton's financial disclosure revealed that Clayton "raked in $7.6 million in the year leading up to his nomination, buoyed by a client roster that included big banks such as Goldman Sachs. President Donald Trump has picked Goldman alums for several regulatory roles in his administration."

Health Vote Postponed
16 hours ago
Senators Press Sonny Perdue on Budget Cuts
17 hours ago

"Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, faced pointed questions about the administration’s proposed cuts to rural assistance programs during his otherwise friendly Senate confirmation hearing Thursday. Throughout the hearing, Perdue affirmed his commitment to several programs that could face cuts due to Trump’s budget: the Rural Utilities Service; the Natural Resource Conservation Center; and various agricultural research programs," even as the president's budget would cut his agency by 20 percent.

No Deal on Healthcare
18 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.