Gov. Sam Brownback’s Battle in the Heartland
TOPEKA, Kan. - Normally, Gov. Sam Brownback is seen as a happy-go-lucky-guy. But times aren't so happy right now for the Kansas governor. He faces a tight race in what is usually considered a safe place for Republicans, despite winning by a landslide when he came into office in 2010.
"It's been tough," Brownback told CBN News.
The problem centers on the economy. His critics say it's in shambles but Brownback says not so fast.
"We are strong in this state but transitions are hard," he said.
That transition began in 2010 when the former senator brought his Tea Party-style of conservatism to Kansas.
In 2012, the governor helped pass the biggest tax cut in America during the last 20 years. He said it would lead to economic growth but so far the results aren't there. At the time, he called it a "real live experiment."
"He was very forthright about this, almost too forthright, saying this was an experiment," Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas, said. "He certainly hoped and assumed that great economic growth would come from cutting taxes."
While Brownback implemented spending cuts, they weren't enough to make up for the loss in tax revenue.
"If you're going to cut revenue, then you also need to adjust spending," Dave Trabert, with the conservative Kansas Policy Institute, said. "It wasn't done. We increased spending and that was bipartisan. It wasn't just the governor. It was Democrats and Republicans alike."
The state's bond rating has been downgraded and critics say by 2016, the projected budget deficit will reach almost $240 million.
"I think a lot of the talk about the closeness of the race is based on a lot of bad information," Trabert told CBN News.
The Whole Story
Gov. Brownback backers say only part of the story is being told. They point out when he took office the state already faced a shortfall of $550 million.
Now, four years later 55,000 jobs have been created and the unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, which is below the national average.
The governor told CBN News that President Ronald Reagan faced similar problems with his massive tax cuts in 1981. But the growth eventually kicked in.
"That's what the situation is somewhat for us here. Tax policy takes some time for it to work," Brownback said. "We'd always projected declining revenues for two years, always projected that."
Paying for education has also been an issue here. His challenger, Democrat Paul Davis, is hitting his opponent for cutting classroom spending.
"He implemented the largest single cut to public school funding in state history and he called it a victory," Davis recently said during a debate with Brownback.
The governor denies that charge, saying overall education spending is actually up.
"I think the other team got their folks out on the field first and they hit hard on the education drum, but they lied about it," Brownback said.
Moderates Jump Ship
One thing is for sure: the governor's changes led to a number of moderate Republicans jumping ship, including former Kansas politician Wint Winter.
"No one in Kansas that I know of consented to being a lab rat in Governor Brownback's experiment about taxes and the economy," Winter said.
Winter set up a group, called Republicans for Kansas Values, and are backing Brownback's opponent because they've seen enough of a downward spiral.
"We don't want to wait any longer," Winter told CBN News. "To wait longer would be irresponsible; it would be sort of the equivalent of the Wizard of Oz clicking our heels three times and hoping that magically it all works but it hasn't and it won't."
Brownback said he's not surprised by this group of moderates who are pushing back against him.
"For a number of them this isn't their first rodeo. They supported Kathleen Sibelius (a Democrat) for governor this first time around and many of them, not all of them, but many of them support tax increases and Obamacare," Brownback said.
This is shaping up as a battle over the role of government. Trabert said big government politicians are threatened.
"It's about we don't want this form of government, this citizen-focused better service-better price government to kick in because it changes the culture of how government operates," he said.
This race is also shining a light on the intense fight for control between conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party. A new Gallup poll shows 38 percent of Kansans are conservative but an almost equal amount, 36 percent, say they're moderate.
Out of the top 10 Republican voting states, Kansas ranked the least conservative of all of them.
"I think this election the question is, will Kansas go back to a somewhat more moderate conservative stance where it's been over the last 40 or 50 years," Loomis said.
Brownback further alienated moderates in 2012 when he supported conservative Republican challengers over moderate incumbents in order to tilt the legislature in his favor.
"We have the same colored jerseys on and what happened with Gov. Brownback - he decided that some of the people with the same colored jerseys on he wanted off the team," Winter said.
Brownback is pushing back.
"Then why do I have moderates in the cabinet? Why? Why do I work with moderates in the House which I do?" he fired back.
Dependence on Faith
Like sharks smelling blood in the water, enemies are hitting from all sides.
"I think the Left is so desperate," Brownback told CBN News. "They want this model to fail so bad that they can't wait for it to and they want to get me electorally before we get on through this and prove that this is working."
This whole political ordeal has tested the governor's faith.
"I've been very dependent upon my faith. It's been a tough season. I like to think that I've been growing, which is what is taking place," he told CBN News.
But Brownback is moving full steam ahead, saying that he plans to, "hit the accelerator" in a second term if he gets it because the way Brownback sees it, he didn't become governor just to take up space.
"When you hire a new coach or a CEO of a company you don't tell him, 'Look, we're kind of in decline. Just manage the decline well; just don't make it hurt too much, okay?' You hire him to say, 'You know what? Change this place; do it the right way. Let's grow!'"
It's a message he hopes will keep him around as governor until the cows come home.