KANSAS CITY, Kansas — After riding a landslide victory into the governor’s mansion in 2010, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback laid out an agenda straight out of any conservative’s dreams. Carving taxes and spending down to the bone, Brownback’s “real live experiment” was supposed to lift Kansas out of the recession and into economic prosperity.
Instead, the test case is unraveling into a monstrous failure.
Just a year after implementing the tax cuts, Kansas is nearly broke and depending how voters sway Tuesday, Brownback could be out of a job.
The test case on conservative governance — hailed by national Republicans seeking to replicate the model on the federal level — could be the defining issue that brings down once-safe Republican incumbents. Even in Kansas, a traditionally deep-red state, conservatives are down to the wire in tight races that remain a toss-up heading into Election Night.
Brownback is not the only Kansas Republican who’s on the ropes. Three-term Sen. Pat Roberts, who has served in Congress since 1981 and has never received less than 60% of the vote in any Senate race, is now neck-and-neck with Greg Orman, a late-surging third party candidate 33 years his junior. As for Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the conservative poster-child behind the restrictive voting laws making their way through state legislatures across the country, he’s narrowly ahead in an unexpectedly tight battle to reclaim his seat.
Backlash from voters who believe Republicans have overstepped in pushing controversial issues now leaves a rare opening for Democrats to wedge a foot in the door of the state legislature.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, the Democrat challenging Brownback, has seized the opportunity to woo moderate conservatives who have grown weary of the incumbent governor’s Republican revolution. According to the latest polling averages, Davis is riding a narrow lead into Election Night.
Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at University of Kansas, said Democrats have done everything they could to capitalize on Brownback’s failures in office.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this is really a referendum on Gov. Brownback and his right-wing policies,” Loomis said. “In the end, it’s the economic experiment and the implications of lost revenue that will decide this election.”
With the help of Arthur Laffer, the mind behind supply-side economics, Brownback shaped a far-right economic agenda for Kansas. Slashing taxes and state spending, Brownback cut corners by eliminating government jobs and clamping down on the social safety net. The plan was to kick start growth and get the state’s economy humming.
Instead, budget projections put Kansas at a $300 million revenue shortfall at the end of the state’s fiscal year in July. The state’s bond rating has since been downgraded in part because of the massive tax cuts, and not just once, but twice.
With a strong majority in the state legislature, Brownback has given the seal of approval to conservative agenda on a number of hot-button issues. Budget cuts led to shuttered classrooms and teachers without a job. Sweeping reproductive rights restrictions limited access to abortions. Relaxed gun laws prevented local governments from regulating arms.
Brownback maintains that the experiment has been a success and has ordered more rounds of cuts to come.
"The state's economy is good and growing," Brownback told reporters after a rally in Topeka this weekend. "Overall, this economy in this state is performing well."
Early signs showed Brownback was in hot water this election when a star-studded line-up of top Republicans ascended on Kansas in a last-ditch effort to boost the incumbent governor's appeal.
For Paula Simonich, a registered Republican who has lived in Kansas City all of her life, no candidate from her party was safe this election cycle.
"My agenda was to vote against any incumbent this year," she said outside her polling place on the chill Tuesday afternoon. "I have never been this angry before."
Simonich said she was especially angered by Brownback's campaigning in trying to claim credit for the successful school districts that he cut funding to.
"He's killing us," she said. "He's killing Kansans."