The Democratic candidate for governor has run his campaign like a submarine, seemingly trying to pass under the radar while Gov. Sam Brownback faces a barrage of bad news above the surface.
But a political scientist says that strategy could end up sinking Paul Davis in the fall.
Davis has not defined himself to voters, leaving himself vulnerable, said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
“I think that Dems are way overconfident right now. Seriously overconfident,” Rackaway said recently after Rasmussen Reports released a poll that showed Davis ahead in the race by 10 points. “I got 15 forwards from Democratic activists throughout the state ... of this poll, saying, you see, time to get on board.”
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“But they’ve left their flank undefended and Brownback is going to define him and he’s going to bring that support for Davis down,” Rackaway said.
Davis supporters dispute that view and said Davis has been engaging with voters in small groups across the state.
Meanwhile, Republicans are already working to advance a view of Davis as a liberal.
The Republican Governors Association has aired ads that link him to President Barack Obama. He was a delegate for Obama at the 2008 and 2012 Democratic national conventions.
Brownback has used similar lines on the campaign trail.
A poll released this week from another firm, Public Policy Polling, had the race closer, with Davis up 39 percent to 37 percent with a 3.3 percent margin of error. That poll included Libertarian Keen Umbehr, who had 9 percent.
The PPP poll said 55 percent of likely voters disapprove of Brownback’s performance as governor and that 41 percent of voters are not sure whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Davis.
Both polls come after several months of damaging headlines for the governor. The state missed revenue estimates by more than $300 million over the span of three months, and suffered downgrades from two leading bond rating companies. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that the FBI was investigating Brownback’s former chief of staff.
Rackaway has repeatedly said that a sack of potatoes would be polling well against Brownback at this point. A relatively unknown challenger, Jennifer Winn of Wichita, managed to get 37 percent against the governor in the primary earlier this month.
A delicate balance
Davis’ campaign has focused on telling voters why they should vote against Brownback. But at some point, the campaign needs to give voters a reason to support Davis, too, said Mark Peterson, a professor of political science at Washburn University.
“While it’s probably prudent to simply run on the basis that I don’t intend to repeat the mistakes of my incumbent opposition, at some point you’ve got to say some things to make you stick in the minds of folks,” Peterson said. “You definitely need to be able to create some sort of an image that creates some buzz and makes people pay attention to what you have to say.”
However, he said, that’s a delicate balance, because a strong statement of what Davis plans to do as governor “gives the opposition the opportunity to peck you to death.”
The Kansas Values Institute, an independent group that supports moderate candidates, has aired ads that attack Brownback. And Davis has frequently criticized the governor’s policies on the campaign trail. But right now, Rackaway says it’s more important for Davis to present a positive alternative to voters.
“Who do you vote for if both sides are really negative?” Rackaway said. “Do you vote for the guy that you know something about and might be uncomfortable with, or do you vote for the guy who’s a complete unknown and the only stuff you know about him is the negative stuff?”
In other words, Davis should be airing a commercial that features his wife and child and shows him strolling through a field in a blue shirt and telling voters what he stands for.
“That’s exactly what he should be doing,” Rackaway said. The campaign released a 2 1/2 minute online video that features Davis talking about his family and philosophy last September.
“They need to edit that down to 30 seconds: Here’s the Paul Davis story,” Rackaway said.
Meetings with voters
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Davis has been meeting with voters one on one at county fairs and other events.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say Paul hasn’t defined himself,” Ward said. “What Paul’s been doing for a year is going around in small groups, below the radar, introducing himself, talking about the issues in a less-oxygenized world where he can just have a conversation and not have everything parsed.”
Tim Graham, a Democratic strategist who has known Davis for years, said that challengers always risk being defined by a well-funded incumbent.
“But what I’m seeing is a lot of enthusiasm and electricity not just amongst our base but a sincere interest among independents and Republicans. I suppose the genesis for that enthusiasm is up for debate,” said Graham, who serves as chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and has volunteered on the Davis campaign in his free time.
“I’ll let the political scientists debate on whether they think it’s pro-Paul, anti-Brownback, whatever, but the fact is when I go to these events I’m seeing new faces of people I’ve never seen before. That’s pretty exciting,” Graham said.
Graham said that the polls show that Davis’ name recognition with voters is increasing.
“Really, the only person I’ve talked to lately who doesn’t know Paul’s name is my 3-year-old son, and he just calls him ‘Caroline’s dad,’ ” he added.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, theorized that one reason that Davis has not aired television ads defining him for voters is that the campaign is preserving money while it’s ahead in the polls. Campaign finance documents filed in late July showed that the Brownback campaign had about $2.4 million in its coffers compared to $1.3 million for Davis.
“Obviously, what’s happening right now is a game of chicken,” Beatty said. “Should Davis be the first? Should he jump out there? He does need to define himself. The question really is when, because he has finite resources.”
Some Republicans say Davis is intentionally avoiding talking about issues in the media to avoid scrutiny.
“Look, campaigns constantly poll these things,” said Ryan Gilliland, chief of staff to Senate President Susan Wagle. “You assume Rep. Davis knows exactly how most Kansans feel about his true beliefs, so he’s got a tremendous incentive to stay pretty guarded.”
The Davis campaign has not released the candidate’s schedule to the media since the day of the primary. During that timeframe, Brownback has had multiple public events.
Chris Pumpelly, spokesman for Davis, said the campaign does not comment on strategy. He said Davis was not avoiding the public or media scrutiny. Davis and other Democratic candidates will hold a rally at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview in Wichita as part of the party’s “Demofest” convention.
“Paul is meeting with people across the state. He has made himself available to the media. He has made himself available to the public. He has private events. He’s doing everything he can to make himself as available as possible,” Pumpelly said.
“And that’s what this campaign is about,” he said. “This campaign is about talking to voters, and frankly it’s not going to be up necessarily to the pundits to determine Paul Davis’ schedule.”