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This Is What's the Matter With Kansas

Sam Brownback tried to create a conservative utopia. He created a conservative hell instead.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The midterm elections of 2010 were good for Republicans nearly everywhere, but amid the national Tea Party insurgency, it was easy to overlook the revolution that was brewing in Kansas. That year, the GOP won every federal and statewide office. Sam Brownback, a genial U.S. senator best known for his ardent social conservatism, captured the governor’s mansion with nearly double the votes of his Democratic opponent. And having conquered Kansas so convincingly, he was determined not to squander the opportunity. His administration, he declared, would be a “real live experiment” that would prove, once and for all, that the way to achieve prosperity was by eliminating government from economic life.

Brownback’s agenda bore the imprint of three decades of right-wing agitation, particularly that of the anti-government radicals Charles and David Koch and their Wichita-based Koch Industries, the single largest contributors to Brownback’s campaigns. Brownback appointed accountant Steve Anderson, who had developed a model budget for the Kochs’ advocacy arm, Americans for Prosperity, as his budget director. Another Koch-linked group, the Kansas Policy Institute, supported his controversial tax proposals. As Brownback later explained to The Wall Street Journal, “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.’”

Brownback established an Office of the Repealer to take a scythe to regulations on business, he slashed spending on the poor by tightening welfare requirements, he rejected federal Medicaid subsidies and privatized the delivery of Medicaid, and he dissolved four state agencies and eliminated 2,000 state jobs. The heart of his program consisted of drastic tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating taxes on income from profits for more than 100,000 Kansas businesses. No other state had gone this far. He was advised by the godfather of supply-side economics himself, the Reagan-era economist Arthur Laffer, who described the reforms as “a revolution in a cornfield.”

Other Midwestern Republican governors had attempted similar experiments, but they were hemmed in by reluctant legislatures and restive electorates. Brownback had Republican majorities in Topeka, which became more decidedly right-wing after the 2012 elections. This gave him near-complete freedom to create a conservative utopia.

And Republicans cheered him on. “This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington, but can’t, at least for now,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Brownback. Influential conservatives in Washington even started talking about him as a promising presidential candidate for 2016. It did not occur to them that less than two years later, Brownback would be struggling even to win reelection in a reliably red state, his party in disarray and his conservative castle crumbling.

On the second floor of the state capitol building in Topeka are two massive murals painted from 1938 to 1940 by Kansan John Steuart Curry. The most famous one covers the east and north sides of the rotunda and depicts a bronze-hued, wild-eyed John Brown, a carbine aloft in his right hand and a Bible in his left. The other covers a wall of the west wing and features a placid farm couple beneath a billowing blue sky. The murals were supposed to show two phases in Kansas’s history, but they also neatly capture its contradictory political temperament. 

Sam Brownback illustration
Sam Vanallemeersch

Kansas has a deep history of radicalism, first on the left and then, more extensively, on the right. This history was fueled by the bloody struggle in the 1850s over whether Kansas would become a free or a slave state and by the state’s ardent religiosity: old-line Methodists (when Methodism was a dissenting, evangelical faith) in the nineteenth century, and Southern Baptists and independent evangelicals after World War II. Brown, an abolitionist, migrated to Kansas in 1855 to fight the proponents of slavery; 40 years later, the Kansan Carrie Nation led the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in shutting down saloons with a hatchet and the Populists blamed the railroads and the money power for the farm depression.

After World War II, Kansas became fertile ground for right-wing fringe organizations, including the John Birch Society, which warned that the United States was on the verge of a communist takeover. In Wichita, Birch Society billboards called for Earl Warren’s impeachment, and voters passed referenda banning fluoride in the water supply. Then, in the 1990s, Kansas became the center of the militant anti-abortion movement. In 1991, Operation Rescue staged the Summer of Mercy, bringing thousands of protesters to Wichita to blockade abortion clinics, and the anti-abortion movement and the religious right became major players in the Kansas Republican Party.

During these years, the Koch family occupied a special place in Kansas politics. They were not strictly products of Kansas, but they fit well into its extremist past. They brought the spirit of oil-patch radicalism, with its hatred of taxes and regulation, from the Southwest to Kansas. Family patriarch Fred Koch, who migrated from Texas to Wichita in 1925, was a founder of the John Birch Society. His sons, Charles and David, also came to identify government economic intervention with socialism and communism. They have accused even centrist Democrats like Barack Obama of being a Marxist and a socialist.

Then there is the other strain of the Kansas character, equally strong but about as different from John Brown and the Kochs as you could imagine. Kansas was also the home of Herbert Hoover’s vice president, Charles Curtis, a champion of the five-day working week; governor and presidential candidate Alf Landon, who would later describe himself as a “practical progressive;” Dwight Eisenhower, who refused to repudiate the New Deal; and, most recently, Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum. These politicians—we would now think of them as Republican moderates—opposed “big government” and “tax-and-spend liberals.” But they also saw a role for government in promoting fairness and preventing unemployment. Similarly, most Kansans enthusiastically supported state and local funding for public schools, hospitals, and roads.

This was particularly true of Kansas Republicans. As Robert Wuthnow describes in Red State Religion, the Methodists, who dominated the Republican Party, prided themselves on civic achievement. Republicans enthusiastically backed public schools and were troubled that Catholics, many of whom were Democrats, were developing a separate educational system. They tended to be conservative in national politics but progressive (without necessarily using that word) in their ideas about state and local government.

These radical and moderate tendencies have co-existed in Kansas politics since the end of the Civil War. And whenever the radicals have surged, as they did in the 1890s and 1990s, the moderates have interceded. In the early 1900s, old guard and progressive Republicans put the Populists and William Jennings Bryan Democrats in their place and co-opted the temperance movement. In the 1990s, moderate Republicans rejected the religious right’s attempt to take over the GOP and helped make way for Kathleen Sebelius and other Democrats to win state office.

On the surface, Brownback seems to embody both strains of Kansas politics. He holds uncompromising views on abortion and economics, and yet he projects a calm, reassuring presence, with his soothing baritone and unimposing handsomeness. (The first time I met him, I mistakenly described him in an article as “diminutive,” but he is actually six feet tall.) “He is an affable fellow. People like to talk to him,” says R. J. Wilson, the former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. In other words, Brownback has the beliefs of a right-wing radical, but the affect of a moderate. That has helped him lead a charmed life in Kansas politics.

And yet for all his easygoing appeal, Brownback—who has long been fascinated by John Brown—is a true radical at heart. According to the author Jeff Sharlet, Brownback became involved with the Fellowship, a secret group that fused political conservatism with fervent Christian belief, as early as 1979, when he was an intern for Dole in the capitol. When he ran for Congress in 1994, he became a vocal leader in the pro-life crusade. And once in Washington, Brownback positioned himself even to the right of Speaker Newt Gingrich, admonishing Gingrich for failing to balance the budget and championing a bill that would have eliminated four Cabinet departments. In 1996, after Dole resigned from the Senate, Brownback won Dole’s seat. As a senator, his greatest triumph came when he led the charge against Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, whom he suspected of being squishy on abortion.

In his major electoral campaigns, Brownback has been careful to tamp down his ideological zeal and play to the even-keeled sensibilities of Kansas voters. When he ran for governor in 2010, he promised to boost the state’s economy and ensure that “education funding goes to the classroom, not to the administration or the courtrooms.” He even warned that Kansans couldn’t “cut . . . our way to growth.” As soon as he was in office, however, the radical reemerged.

In addition to his sweeping tax cuts, Brownback wanted to eliminate the earned-income tax credit, which had benefited the working poor. He cut about $200 million in the state’s spending on education—the largest such reduction in the state’s history; and he proposed changing the school financing formula at the expense of poorer, urban districts. He sought to centralize power by eliminating an important legacy of the state’s moderate Republicanism: a nonpartisan commission that recommends judicial nominees.

Brownback’s tax cuts had produced a staggering loss in revenue—$687 million, or nearly 11 percent.

From the outset, Brownback got most of what he wanted. However, Republican moderates in the state Senate joined with its handful of Democrats to chip away at the tax and spending cuts, and to block his plan for judicial nominations. And so Brownback went on the offensive against the moderates within his own party. During the 2012 Republican primaries, he supported conservative challengers against sitting state senators, with generous assistance from Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which is also sustained by Koch Industries. Eight of the conservative challengers won, and Brownback went on a victory tour of Conservative Political Action Conference meetings in Chicago, Denver, and St. Louis, proclaiming, “You change America by changing the states.”

After he had ousted the moderate Republicans, Brownback was able to push an ideologically pure agenda with almost no real opposition. He obtained the power to nominate judges. He reduced tax cuts on the wealthy even more: The rate for the top bracket fell from 6.45 percent to 3.9 percent, and Brownback promised to eventually reduce it to zero when revenues from other sources made up for any potential losses. The economic benefits, he boasted, would be immense. In Denver in October 2012, Brownback predicted “more job creation, more tax revenues, and . . . a much more solid public-sector funding.” The Kansas Policy Institute, for instance, predicted that his tax cuts would generate a $323 million windfall in revenue.

Jim Yonally is a former state legislator who lives in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. He is a Republican and votes Republican in national elections. “I don’t really subscribe to what the Obama administration is doing,” he told me. “My man is John McCain.” But by the fall of 2011, he had become deeply disillusioned with the Brownback administration. As a retired school administrator, he was troubled by the education cuts. He wanted to preserve the role of nonpartisan commissions in nominating judges. And he believed that Kansas needed “equitable and adequate tax systems, and what the governor proposed was neither.”

What drove Yonally over the edge wasn’t so much Brownback himself, but a temperamental discomfort with his hard-line style. “I was watching some Republican candidates for office on TV, and every other word out of their mouth was ‘conservative.’ I am Republican. But I am not as conservative as these guys,” he told me. Yonally called another former legislator from Overland Park, Dick Bond, and together they founded a group of former Republican legislators called Traditional Republicans for Common Sense to oppose Brownback. About 40 people initially signed up; membership has since doubled.

One member of the group is Wint Winter Jr., a prominent Lawrence lawyer and banker and the scion of an old Kansas Republican family. Last December, as Brownback was preparing for his reelection campaign, Winter decided the situation had become so alarming that he wanted Republicans to endorse Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor. He began calling members of the Traditional Republicans, and while a few balked, many went along. Several members, Winter said, tried to reason with Brownback to tone down his crusade and failed. “I think it was seeing Sam’s insistence on continuing this course of failed financial policies,” Winter told me, when explaining the willingness of moderate Republicans to support a Democrat.

By June of 2014, the results of Brownback’s economic reforms began to come in, and they weren’t pretty. During the first fiscal year that his plan was in operation, which ended in June, the tax cuts had produced a staggering loss in revenue—$687.9 million, or 10.84 percent. According to the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department, the state risks running deficits through fiscal year 2019. Moody’s downgraded the state’s credit rating from AA1 to AA2; Standard & Poor’s followed suit, which will increase the state’s borrowing costs and further enlarge its deficit.

Brownback had also promised that his tax cuts would vault Kansas ahead of its higher-taxed neighbors in job growth, but that, too, failed to happen. In Kansas, jobs increased by 1.1 percent over the last year, compared with 3.3 percent in neighboring Colorado and 1.5 percent in Missouri. From November to May, Kansas had actually lost jobs, and the labor participation rate was lower than when Brownback took office. The cuts did not necessarily slow job growth, but they clearly did not accelerate it. And the effects of Brownback’s education cuts were also glaring—larger class sizes, rising fees for kindergarten, the elimination of arts programs, and laid-off janitors and librarians.

In July, Winter went public with his anti-Brownback group, Republicans for Kansas Values, which launched with more than 100 members. It includes William Kassebaum (the son of former Senator Nancy Kassebaum), who is now the treasurer of the Davis campaign, and the current Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger. Praeger had wanted Kansas to implement its own health insurance exchange, which was already being designed, but Brownback shut it down. Praeger was furious. “When I saw folks were willing to step up and endorse Davis, I would have been embarrassed not to,” she told me.

Brownback’s standing in the electorate began to plummet; his approval rating sunk to the thirties. But the clearest sign that he was in deep trouble came in August. In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Brownback’s only opponent was Jennifer Winn, a Wichita businesswoman with no political experience and a campaign war chest of $13,596.17. Her son was facing murder charges from a botched drug deal, and she ran on a platform of legalizing marijuana. She won 37 percent of the vote.

The unlikely beneficiary of Brownback’s nosedive, Democratic candidate Paul Davis, could pass for a mainline minister: tall and somewhat gaunt, with a broad forehead and wireless spectacles. He has been the minority leader in the Kansas House since 2008. Like Praeger and Winter, he comes from Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas and the state’s most liberal community. At 42, he is 15 years younger than Brownback, although they look about the same age. I first met him in Lawrence at his campaign headquarters in a nondescript two-story office building.

Davis has an accurate understanding of Kansas’s political character, which he describes as “conservative with a progressive streak.” He also understands that Republicans have an almost two-to-one advantage over Democrats in voter registration. Consequently, he is not running as a Democrat but as a “moderate” and an “independent thinker.” When he spoke at a Democratic dinner in Wichita, I started to count the number of times he talked about forming “bipartisan coalitions,” but lost track.

Davis’s main issue is education, and according to a Democratic operative, his campaign has sent out a directive to other Democrats that the party shouldn’t stray from that topic in promoting his candidacy. He is steering clear of social issues: While acknowledging that he was pro-choice, he told me, “Kansas has the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, and I am not going to seek to change that.” And he is not even promising to repeal Brownback’s tax cuts on business and the wealthy, only to “freeze” them.

I asked Davis whether Brownback was correct in repeatedly referring to him as an “Obama Democrat.” “No, he doesn’t have that right,” Davis replied. “The hallmark of my career in the legislature has been my ability to work with Republicans. I have been a leader in building bipartisan coalitions.” When I asked if he backed the Affordable Care Act, he paused portentously and finally said, “I think there are some things that are good, like being able to keep your kids on your insurance, but some things in it that are bad and that are hurting the community and health care providers.”

As for Brownback, his campaign is now visibly struggling. I ran into the governor at a popular Kansas City luncheon place, Oklahoma Joe’s. He was appearing along with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was plugging Brownback on behalf of the Republican Governor’s Association, whose main source of funds is (you guessed it) Koch Industries. The event was scheduled for lunchtime, but there were more advance people in attendance than customers, and one of the diners whom Brownback approached didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t the first time Brownback has had trouble attracting crowds. An event with Rick Santorum was originally scheduled in July for the CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City, which can hold 4,800 people, but was moved to the showroom of a car lot in suburban Olathe, where 200 people showed up.

After greeting the customers, and praising the ribs, the two politicians gathered outside to meet the press. David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and campaign manager and now the head of a Topeka lobbying firm, told me that Brownback was suffering in the polls because he had been too successful in implementing his agenda. “If you try these things and fall back, you get credit from the people who were for you, and you generate less opposition from the people who were against you,” Kensinger explained. So I asked Brownback if he had become so unpopular because he was a victim of his own success.

“I don’t think [people] know the truth about education, the investment we made, the record amount of money in K–12,” Brownback responded. “I don’t think they know the truth about the private job creation numbers. And that’s what a campaign is about. You put forward what is factually happening. And I don’t think they know the truth that Paul Davis is an Obama Democrat and has a very liberal track record, voted for tax increases, voted for Obamacare, and was twice an Obama delegate.” (Yes, he accused Davis, a state legislator, of voting for Obamacare.) After Brownback finished, Christie, who was breathing heavily, berated me: “The use of the word ‘victim’ and Sam Brownback in the same sentence is the worst kind of analogy you can make.”

But Kensinger was right. Brownback would have been better off if the legislature had blocked his tax and spending cuts. Instead, in a year that should be a lock for a Republican in a brick-red state like Kansas, he is in danger of losing to a man who wasn’t even considered a top-tier Democratic candidate 18 months ago. It’s hard to imagine a more devastating testimony to the categorical failure of Brownback’s “real live” experiment.

Davis is ahead by about four points in current public opinion polls. Still, he faces a tough battle. He has never run statewide and has already suffered from two mini-scandals. To win, he needs about a quarter of the Republican vote and at least half of Kansas’s unaffiliated voters. And everyone expects Brownback and the various Koch satellites to throw hundreds of thousands into the race. (“Conservatives have good Octobers,” Kensinger assured me.)

And yet Davis has his own built-in advantage. Throughout its history, Kansas has birthed an extraordinary cast of political extremists—radicals who have won fervent followings and sometimes even national attention. But when those extremists have threatened to take over the state’s political system, they have inevitably been checked by Kansans’ deeply held preference for moderation in the governance of their state. If the state’s voters are faced with a choice between a mild-mannered, cautious Democrat and a Republican crusader with a Bible in one hand and a check from Koch Industries in the other, history favors the Democrat.