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Chapman Rackaway: Brownback isn’t that vulnerable

  • Published Friday, April 12, 2013, at 7 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 12, 2013, at 7 p.m.

Opening a newspaper must be depressing for Gov. Sam Brownback. Bad news abounds.

The news editor at the Hutchinson News scathingly eulogized the state of Kansas in a recent column while laying blame at the feet of Brownback’s conservative agenda. Revenues dwindle, budgets are decimated, and the governor’s approval rating hovers in the mid-30s. Based on those low ratings and high disapproval ratings, the blog of New York Times pundit Nate Silver proclaimed Brownback the fourth-most-vulnerable gubernatorial re-election candidate for 2014, behind marked men such as Illinois’ Pat Quinn and Florida’s Rick Scott.

But Brownback has an ace in the hole, and likely will cruise to re-election. Brownback’s vulnerability assumes a strong challenge.

For the same reason that Sen. Pat Roberts will win re-election, Brownback appears almost equally poised.

The opposition research on Brownback is well-established: firebrand conservative who wants to privatize as much of government as possible and create a theocratic libertarian Utopia. Taxes are hacked, and only accounting tricks can make core budget items like education and social services appear to be held harmless. The outlook looks bleaker the longer one projects into the future.

Brownback must have a coterie of ambitious candidates, including Republicans, ready to separate him from the job. Not so fast.

The monolithic character of Kansas Republicans today is the craft work of Brownback himself. By decimating the center-right wing of the party in 2012, Brownback has neutralized the money and support base that any Republican hoping to mount a serious challenge against him would need.

Former state Sens. Jean Schodorf or Tim Owens might be likely candidates, but neither of them has the statewide name recognition or campaign apparatus that could remotely hope to compete with Brownback’s already-humming re-election effort. The Brownback machine has not stopped since winning in 2010 and shows no signs of slowing.

National-level Republicans fare no better. In a Public Policy Polling survey in February, Roberts was matched up against both Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Both came up wanting and would against Brownback, too. The governor has clearly cemented himself as the Kansas Republican Party.

Things look just as bleak on the other side of the aisle. Kathleen Sebelius won’t return to run again, and Mark Parkinson had one of the weakest popularity results in the poll. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is an option, but the most serious candidate has the famed last name Docking.

Jill Docking began a blog on Kansas politics this year with support from a powerful Democratic campaign entity. With family name recognition, ability to raise funds, and no real intraparty challenge clearing the path to nomination, Docking appears to be the only threat to the governor.

Though blogging about the governor is a good start, Docking would also need to see a revival of the state Democratic Party to match the fundraising and mobilization efforts that characterized a resurrected Kansas GOP in 2010.

The best candidate to oppose Brownback, therefore, does not control her own destiny, making Brownback perhaps the least vulnerable of the most vulnerable governors in 2014.

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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