GOP: Not in Kansas Anymore?

Sam Brownback

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GOP: Not In Kansas Anymore
| Published May 3, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

For Democrats, the only candidate that matters at the moment is an ex-United States Senator and former Secretary of State. Indeed, Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a pre-primary, pre-caucus lead that would be the envy of any non-incumbent or potential presidential candidate of the last 40 or 50 years.

The Republicans, by contrast, have no such superstar. But among those most frequently discussed, it is governors, not senators, who dominate the conversation. In March and April, Thursday Review posted several articles about former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Indiana governor Mike Pence, and current New Jersey governor Chris Christie—once the GOP’s de facto front runner, but now locked in a politically awkward, slowly evolving battle with scandal, the result of what has become known as Bridgegate. Despite his defiance, Christie’s future remains uncertain—at least for 2016.

Other chief executives—current and former—are on the presidential radar as well, including Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Sarah Palin (Alaska, and of course her famous pairing with John McCain in 2008), and Mike Huckabee, a former resident of the governor’s mansion in Arkansas and a veteran of the presidential campaign of 2007-2008. There are others on everyone’s long list of potential GOP candidates, many from the House and Senate, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul. Rick Santorum, too, has begun a campaign of vetting his message through emails and other outreach. A casual perusal of some conservative websites also reveals that some in the GOP are looking at South Carolina's Nikki Haley, a popular Palmetto State governor since 2011. Another name mentioned in some surveys is John Kasich, Ohio governor.

But in the absence of any obvious heavyweights, and with Jeb Bush deferring a decision until later this year, the field becomes more level, offering lesser-known politicians a chance to enter the fray—or at least giving them the option to field test their messages. Almost everyone in the GOP has their favorite horse, and most have a second or a third. After we published those articles in March and April, we received a flurry of emails and social media posts reminding us of even more names, including that of Pence. Also among those emails and posts came one from a reader in Atlanta who said simply “don’t forget about Sam Brownback of Kansas…the conservative’s conservative.”

Brownback has been on the long lists before. As far back as late 2006, when he was a U.S. Senator, his name was floated as a dark-horse contender. When early polls indicated strength among the GOP’s most conservative wing, he entered the race officially in early 2007 with the modest goal of rallying Republican conservatives—especially social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks—at a time when the race was ill-defined and the destination of the party’s right unclear. In those days, New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Arizona’s John McCain were taking turns in the lead position, Huckabee was still low on the radar screens, and restless Reaganites were seriously considering Fred Dalton Thompson, whose campaign would not become official until summer. Mitt Romney was drawing some support from mainline conservatives.

Brownback was an early supporter of intervention in Iraq, and was a vocal advocate (like McCain) of The Surge in 2007. At a time when the war in Iraq was at its lowest level of popular support at home, this put him at odds with the opinion of many that the U.S. had already overstayed its welcome and its usefulness in what had become a bloody and costly war. Only later, during McCain’s phoenix-like return from the bottom of the heap to the top, did the view of the Surge prevail again.

But this was too late for Brownback in 2007. Stuck in single-digit numbers, and after a poor performance during the September 5, 2007 GOP debate on Fox News Channel (see: Road Show, Thursday Review; September 15, 2007), talk of Brownback as conservative dark horse began to fade. Within days, his fundraising efforts began to dry up. He eventually withdrew from a crowded—and sometimes confusingly muddled—field which included Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore and Tommy Thompson. On October 19, 2007, he endorsed John McCain, much to the chagrin of some conservatives, and raising the hackles of the high-profile commentators at Fox News.

But Brownback’s conservative credentials are about as solid as they can get. His first arrival to the Senate was, in fact, a precursor to a Tea Party movement which would not solidify or even define itself for over a decade. When Bob Dole resigned from the United States Senate in 1996 to campaign full-time for President (Dole was challenging President Bill Clinton), Kansas Governor Bill Graves appointed Sheila Framm to fill Dole’s vacant seat. Framm—a lifelong Republican, a majority leader in the state senate, a Lieutenant Governor, and someone with a record of voting alongside the GOP in 93% of all roll call votes in the legislature.

However, Brownback challenged Framm in the GOP primary, outflanking her to the right and edging her into the role of the “moderate” in a state with a predominantly Republican political template. Latching onto the after-effects of the Republican Revolution of 1994, Brownback went on to easily defeat Democrat Jill Docking in November 1996. Upon his arrival in Washington Brownback quickly established his reputation that “conservative’s conservative.” In his 1998 and 2004 re-election campaigns, Brownback crushed his Democratic opponents, defeating Lee Jones in 2004 by more than 69% of the vote.

He served out his terms until he ran headlong into his own commitment to term limits. Later, he ran for governor—a new favorite of Plains States Tea Partiers—and he again easily defeated his Democratic opponent by taking nearly two-thirds of the vote statewide. Brownback came into the governor’s office with what was then the most popular of all possible Tea Party combinations: a commitment to his pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage stances, and a robust position on fiscal restraint and lower taxes. Brownback was also an early and vocal critic of Obamacare, famously refusing a $31.5 million grant from Health & Human Services—money designated to help Kansas set-up an statewide exchange under the provisions of health care reform. The irony is not lost on his supporters (and a few of his detractors) that one of his predecessors in the governor’s office was Kathleen Sebelius, until very recently Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and the person at the center of the storm when the health care website failed and registration numbers lagged below administration forecasts and estimates.

As governor he also engaged in a high-profile defunding of the Kansas Arts Commission. The legislature fought him, but in the end he vetoed all bills to restore funding that arrived on his desk, declaring that the arts should be funded privately or through community and local support, not on the backs of taxpayers struggling to make mortgage payments and feed families.

Already conservative on abortion, Kansas became even more strict in 2011 after Brownback signed into law several bills limiting abortion—including legislation which bans any abortion after 21 weeks. He also signed into law a requirement that any patient under 17 must have the legal permission of the parents or guardians before an abortion can be performed.

All of this would seem to put the former Kansas Senator and current governor on the fast track for the 2016 early handicapping—especially considering his fierce opposition to Obamacare and his tenacious commitment to lower taxes and restrained government spending.

But despite some discussion by a few analysts and commentators, Brownback’s timing may not be ideal for 2016. Kansas under his guidance has run into a few fiscal problems as a result of ill-timed tax-cuts and reduced spending. Some of those tax-cuts were the work of his immediate predecessors, Sebelius, and later Mark Parkinson, but Brownback pushed hard to sustain those tax cuts at the exact moment when the economy was still in the deepest recessionary valley. Later, in 2012, he pushed even harder for deeper tax cuts, and the resulting spending curbs affected nearly every aspect of the Kansas economy. Though the long-term effects may eventually prove Brownback to be a visionary, the near-term judgment is that the cuts were too deep. Especially hard hit were public schools, where a disparity formed between the wealthier school districts and the poorer ones. Per student spending has dropped slightly, according to a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek, and the state’s own courts have weighed in on the problem—ordering that allocations for education be increased quickly to remedy the problem facing K-12 funding.

As a result, other tax-cut hawks are wary of endorsing Brownback’s Kansas template until the Sunflower State’s situation improves. Kansas has seen jobs growth, but it has been neither better nor worse than the national average. Brownback’s supporters say that with any fiscal plan which embraces austerity comes some degree of pain, and a few have even suggested that Brownback’s ambitious spending cuts could have gone much deeper.

Fiscal conservatives suggest that these things take time, especially in the wide and turbulent wake of the Great Recession, and Kansas is no exception. Recent jobs numbers from the U.S. Labor Department indicate a mixed bag of national news ranging from good to fair-to-middling to not-so-good. Unemployment reached its lowest level since the start of the recession, but many of those jobs were in retail and temporary sectors. Worse, hundreds of thousands have dropped from the workforce entirely—some through retirement, perhaps, but surely many more after long and fruitless searches for jobs. Underemployment still persists in every state.

Then there is the obvious concern that Brownback might be too unrepentantly conservative, especially in the context of internal GOP concerns over the party's inability to reach effectively past its base. In this sense, Brownback may be judged incompatible with a kinder, gentler Republican tack going into 2016. Brownback's positions on same-sex marriage and abortion will appeal solidly to social conservatives, but will surely negate any chance of crossover from the blue side of the electorate.

Meanwhile, with Jeb Bush watching his name float to the top of some GOP lists—the parlor game begins in earnest. A complex dance will almost certainly begin later this year as potential candidates jostle for attention, inevitably contrasting and comparing themselves not only to Bush, but also to Hillary Clinton. The question is whether Sam Brownback ends up on the top half of that list, the bottom, or not at all.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Economy: Good News, Bad News; Thursday Review; May 2, 2014.

The GOP Challenge: Find the White Knight; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 19, 2014.

Bush Versus Clinton: Déjà vu, All Over Again; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 11, 2014.