A red sedan darts through the Flint Hills, bobbing up and down like a small boat in a sea of green waves.
“I think this is the most beautiful scenery in Kansas. I absolutely love this drive,” says the man in the front passenger seat. “Anybody who doesn’t believe that Kansas is a scenic state has got to come take this in.”
He’s been making the trip from northeast Kansas to Wichita a lot lately. And he’ll keep making it until November.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis wants to be governor, and it’s essential for him to do well in Wichita.
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Davis has visited Wichita about once a week since January, according to his campaign. And his running mate, Jill Docking, is a prominent Wichita businesswoman. On this day, he’s headed to the National Center for Aviation Training to announce his economic plan.
He calls aviation the foundation of the city’s economy but says the state also has to help the city find ways to diversify. “I just think the state has to do a much better job on engaging private industry, engaging community leaders at the local government level and really being a partner.”
The Lawrence Democrat is going up against a man who has been at the forefront of Kansas politics since the 1990s. Davis, whom most Kansans probably wouldn’t recognize on the street, has so far not only kept pace with but was leading Gov. Sam Brownback 47 to 41 percent with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points in a June telephone poll from SurveyUSA. One in four Republican voters preferred Davis.
The Brownback campaign dismissed SurveyUSA’s poll, citing the firm’s incorrect prediction about Sedgwick County’s vote on fluoride in 2012 as proof that it has trouble forecasting in Kansas.
Davis says his favorite movie is “Hoosiers,” about an underdog basketball team that pulls off a massive upset to win a championship. Democrats are hoping Davis can do the same.
A lot can change between now and November, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
“I’m certainly not of the mindset that Davis should start measuring the drapes at Cedar Crest,” Rackaway said, adding that Brownback has barely begun campaigning. “The aggressive stuff hasn’t started yet.”
Rackaway expects Brownback to eke out a narrow victory but called him vulnerable.
“It’s always news when a plane doesn’t land right,” he said. “We’re in a deep red state. Brownback should be cruising. The fact that he’s not is newsworthy in and of itself.”
Brownback, who was at an event at a Leavenworth elementary school last week, said he was unconcerned about the early poll numbers.
“They don’t know Paul Davis is an Obama Democrat – Obama delegate twice, supports Obamacare, supports tax increases,” Brownback said. “They don’t know what we’ve done for education. They don’t know that we’ve increased funding for education. So you know you’ve got a lot of lack of information or misinformation out there.”
Whether you think Brownback has cut or increased education funding usually depends on your party affiliation.
Democrats have called for base state funding per pupil to be restored to pre-recession levels.
Republicans contend that total education funding has increased. This calculation includes spending on teacher pensions. “They’re not going to teach if they don’t have a pension,” Brownback said.
In Leavenworth, an elementary school is kicking off a summer reading program that the Department for Children and Families created at the governor’s request.
Brownback asks the students to promise to read during the summer. One girl says no. He leans in and starts to negotiate, offering to buy her ice cream if she does.
Before long, the governor is swarmed by children. They’re all promising to read. One girl says she’ll read a thousand books a day. Brownback tells her she’ll get ice cream.
Afterward, he tours the school to meet with teachers and watch kids enthusiastically playing vocabulary games. He’s impressed when a teacher tells him that some students in the program read as many as three books a day and even struggling readers read one.
Brownback and his supporters have frequently said the media has overlooked the state’s successes and exaggerated its challenges.
“What we’ve done has worked. But nobody’s heard that,” he said.
The governor points to the state’s unemployment rate, which is below 5 percent, as proof that his economic policies are working.
But Kansas was one of only five states to lose more jobs than it gained between November and May, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Brownback dismissed that report because it does not focus specifically on private-sector growth.
“Our target has been to grow private-sector jobs. It hasn’t been to grow public-sector jobs,” he said. “But if you mix that – because that’s Bureau of Labor Statistics – then it looks like, well, it’s not doing quite so well. If you look at our target, only Oklahoma is ahead of us in the region.”
Davis portrays Brownback as unwilling to face the reality of the state’s economic outlook.
The state ended the fiscal year with $727 million less, in part because of tax cuts. That was $338 million less than state officials had projected. Republican leaders blame Washington for this shortfall, but Democrats say the cause is the governor’s income tax cuts, which he promised would act as an “adrenaline shot” to the economy.
“One of the things that bothers me is that Sam Brownback is unwilling to even acknowledge there is a problem,” Davis said during the car ride to Wichita. “You show him the budget run that says we’re in debt $1.5 billion in the next five years, and he’s not willing to say, ‘Oh, well, that’s a problem.’
“I think we have to be frank with people about some of the tough choices we have to make and be willing to make those choices,” Davis said. “You ask Gov. Brownback, ‘What’s your plan B?’ There is no plan B.”
Davis has used the shortfall to bludgeon Brownback on the campaign trail. But he has stopped short of advocating for repeal of the tax cuts, instead saying the next round of tax cuts should be postponed and a commission should be created to study tax policy.
Mark Dugan, Brownback’s campaign manager, dismissed Davis’ criticisms.
“Paul Davis has been saying the sky is falling since 2011,” Dugan said. “We’re on the right path.”
The race has caught national attention, grabbing headlines in the New York Times and getting coverage on cable news. A reporter from Politico interviewed Davis in Wichita last week.
A defeat for Brownback in Kansas would be a major setback for conservative purists, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who knows Brownback from his years as a senator in Washington, D.C.
“He took a pretty big gamble that his economic policies would work, and right now they have a budget crisis. He kind of put all his poker chips in, and it’s not certain he’s going to win that bet,” Feehery said in a phone call.
“Voters are not very patient,” he added.
Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst who tracks gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report in Washington, called the Kansas race an anomaly in a year that Republicans are expected to do well.
“The national mood and the national landscape tilts toward Republicans. It also says that Brownback’s problems are unique to Brownback,” Duffy said. “He’s pursued an agenda of tax cuts and is paying for it right now – literally.”
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, one of Brownback’s closest political allies, said the governor has received criticism for acting boldly.
“Systems, whether they’re public or private, resist change. And the governor has brought change to the state of Kansas, and he’s taken some hits for doing that,” she said.
Wagle repeated the idea that Brownback has suffered from unfair media coverage.
“The liberal press loved Kathleen Sebelius, and she grabbed a lot of headlines, positive headlines,” she said. “He’s had a lot of naysayers, and his message has not received much coverage in the press.”
Dugan said the governor’s campaign would rely on television, radio and mail to spread the message that conservatives feel has gone unheard. But he also said meeting face to face with voters would be a key part of the campaign.
“We look forward to taking our message directly to the voters. The governor’s going to have a very active travel schedule. He’s going to be meeting and handshaking voters like he has done for years,” Dugan said.
Duffy still sees the race leaning in Brownback’s favor – though she said it could become a toss-up if news about the state’s finances does not improve. She said poll numbers have more to do with frustration with Brownback than support for Davis.
“He’s a generic challenger. It’s just how people are feeling about the governor right now,” she said. The November race features a Libertarian candidate as well, Keen Umbehr.
Even the governor’s little-known Republican challenger, Jennifer Winn, is polling surprisingly well against him. Brownback leads Winn 55 to 37 percent among Republican voters.
‘Nancy Pelosi of Kansas’
Rackaway said that Davis has not yet defined himself for voters, which could enable Republicans to do that instead.
The Brownback campaign has referred to Davis as an “Obama-style Democrat” and a “liberal lawyer from Lawrence.” And Dugan called him “the Nancy Pelosi of Kansas” in an e-mail this week.
Davis laughed off the attacks in the car, quipping that Brownback also received his law degree in Lawrence.
“I expect that this is going to be the thrust of their campaign, because they want to do everything they can to shift the focus away from the governor’s record,” he said.
Tim Graham, chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, said Davis will be able to win if he can get his message heard.
“To win, what we need is for people to be able to get to listen to Paul Davis just one time. That’s always been our challenge,” Graham said. “They’re going to hear a born and bred Kansan that thinks like they do and represents their values.”
Davis has been criss-crossing the state to meet with voters and community leaders. The campaign has been working to raise money, much of it coming from small donations, to keep up with the Brownback campaign and conservative groups as ad season begins.
On the way to Wichita, Davis’ car pulls into the parking lot of Coach’s restaurant in Emporia. Harry Stevens, a former Democratic senator, greets him as he gets out, “Hello, governor. How you doing?”
Inside, Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, is having lunch. He is surprised to see the entire Davis campaign arrive to meet with supporters and media. Longbine gives Davis a friendly greeting, then ducks out before the Emporia Gazette can photograph him with the Democratic candidate. He reiterates his support for Brownback.
Davis has heavily courted Republican voters. But Longbine, at least, isn’t ready to come aboard.