A Promise Fulfilled Upends Kansas Governor's Race | KERA News

A Promise Fulfilled Upends Kansas Governor's Race

Sep 11, 2014
Originally published on September 12, 2014 8:00 am

Kansas has become such a reliably red state in presidential elections that when other election years roll around, the results still seem a foregone conclusion. But the governor's mansion has switched parties often in the past 60 years, and Democrats may take it back this November.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is running for re-election, and for months now, polls have shown him consistently running well behind his Democratic challenger.

This isn't your typical incumbent-in-trouble story, though. In office, Brownback has done exactly what he said he would. But many, many voters aren't happy, including a lot of Republicans.

Big tax cuts that Brownback championed have left Kansas with a serious budget problem.

Hutchinson resident Mark Richardson has a long history of supporting Brownback — as a U.S. senator, and as governor. But this year: "Who am I going to vote for? I'm not going to say yet."

The Democrat in the race is Paul Davis, currently the minority leader in the Kansas House of Representatives. Davis is not well-known statewide, but polls show him benefiting from widespread disapproval of Brownback.

Some of the loudest complaints have come from moderate Republicans. This summer, 104 Republicans — current and former Kansas officials — held a press conference to endorse Davis.

Republican Carol Ruppe Linnens, a former state school board member, was there. "In his very first legislative session, [Brownback] made the largest cut to our schools in state history and then had the nerve to call it a victory for our state," she says.

Brownback argues that he has increased total funding to schools, noting that it's 52 percent of the state budget. But his critics point out that per-pupil spending is down significantly. There have been cuts to programs, classes are larger, teachers are working longer hours, and local school boards are just trying to cope.

And in the coming years, projections put state budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions annually.

Jeffrey Jarmon, a political analyst at Wichita State University, says Brownback ran on a platform to cut taxes in the state, and he followed through on that promise.

"He got legislators on board with that, put other legislators in place to support that policy. And now the economic issues the state faces are a result of that, and that's really what this election is deciding," Jarmon says.

Brownback's position is simple: Kansas is doing quite well, thank you, and his critics distort the facts. In the closing line of his latest campaign ad, he tries to drive that home: "The sun is shining in Kansas and don't let anybody tell you any different."

In the first gubernatorial debate recently at the Kansas State Fair, Brownback addressed the state's economic issues. "Our unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. We have a record number of Kansans working. We have the fastest-growing economy in the region and more new business created than ever in the history of the state," he said.

But Democrat Paul Davis countered with a darker view of things, saying the deficit is projected to hit $1.3 billion in five years.

"Our credit rating has been downgraded three times. We're 45th in the nation in new business creation," Davis said. "In 2013, more businesses closed up shop than opened shop. It's because we have an economic experiment that isn't working. Let's return to a proven Kansas model of growing our economy, and that's how we're going to help Kansas."

Working in Brownback's favor is the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state by nearly 2-1. But there are lots of independents. And while they tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, it's not at all certain they will this time. That leaves Brownback — who got just about everything he wanted in his first term — with eight weeks to convince a wary public that it's what they wanted, too.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Kansas has become a reliably red state. When election years roll around, the results seem a foregone conclusion. But this year, it's different. The state's Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is running for re-election. But big tax cuts that he championed have left Kansas with a serious budget problem. For months now, polls have shown Brownback consistently running well behind his Democratic challenger.

NPR's Don Gonyea has our report.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is not your typical incumbent in trouble story. Republican Sam Brownback is a Conservative in a conservative state. In office, he's done exactly what he said he would. But many, many voters aren't happy, including a lot of Republicans. Take Hutchinson resident Mark Richardson, who has a long history of supporting Brownback as a U.S. senator and as a governor. This year, he's not so sure.

GONYEA: You voted for him last time.

MARK RICHARDSON: I did.

GONYEA: You voted for when he ran for Senate?

RICHARDSON: Yes.

GONYEA: Where are you on this election? What are you going to do?

RICHARDSON: Who am I going to vote for? I'm not going to say, yet.

GONYEA: The Democrat in the race is Paul Davis, who's currently the minority leader in the Kansas House of Representatives. Davis is not well known statewide, but polls show him benefiting from widespread disapproval of Brownback. Some of the loudest complaints have come from moderate Republicans.

Take this story from this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "KSN NEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: KSN News at five.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Under the current Republican governor, Kansas is going in the wrong direction.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sounds like something a Democrat might say. But this is a group of Republicans, all leaders in the party and in government, stepping out to support the Democrat running for governor.

GONYEA: That's TV coverage of a press conference in Topeka, where 104 Republicans, current and former Kansas officials, endorsed Democrat Paul Davis. Republican Carol Ruppe Linnens, a former state school board member, was there. She opposes Brownback.

CAROL RUPPE LINNENS: In his very first legislative session, he made the largest cut to our schools in state history and then had the nerve to call it a victory for our state.

GONYEA: Governor Brownback argues that he has increased total funding to schools, noting that it's 52 percent of the state budget. But his critics point out that per-pupil spending is down significantly. There have been cuts to programs, larger class sizes, teachers working longer hours and local school boards just trying to cope.

And in the coming years, projections put state budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions, annually.

Jeffrey Jarmon is a political analyst at Wichita State University.

JEFFREY JARMON: He definitely ran on a platform that would cut taxes in the state and aggressively cut taxes in the state. He got legislators on board with that, put other legislators in place to help support that policy. And now the economic issues the state faces are a result of that. And that's really what this election is deciding.

GONYEA: Brownback's position is simple - Kansas is doing quite well, thank you, and that his critics distort the facts. Notice the closing line of his latest campaign ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 CAMPAIGN AD)

GOVERNOR SAM BROWNBACK: The sun is shining in Kansas and don't let anybody tell you any different.

GONYEA: Here's how he put it in the first gubernatorial debate, this past weekend at the Kansas State Fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUBERNATORIAL DEBATE)

BROWNBACK: Our unemployment rate's 4.9 percent, we have a record number of Kansans working. We have the fastest-growing economy in the region and more new businesses created than ever in the history of the state.

GONYEA: Democrat Paul Davis countered with the darker view of things under Brownback, saying the deficit will hit 1.3 billion dollars in five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUBERNATORIAL DEBATE)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL DAVIS: Our credit rating has been downgraded three times. We're forty-fifth in the nation in new business creation. In 2013, more businesses closed up shop than opened shop. It's because we have an economic experiment that isn't working. Let's return to a proven Kansas model of growing our economy. And that's how we're going to help Kansans.

GONYEA: Working in Brownback's favor is the fact that Republicans in Kansas outnumber Democrats by nearly two to one. That there are lots of Independents and while they tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, it's not at all certain they will this time, leaving Brownback, who got just about everything he wanted in his first term, less than eight weeks to convince a wary public that it's what they wanted too.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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