Surveys find a hint of election vulnerability in Gov. Sam Brownback

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback remodeled Kansas state government in his conservative vision — and perhaps is paying a price.

Brownback fired up critics with income tax reductions that could leave gaping holes in the state budget. They were upset at tightening laws restricting abortion, at slicing funds for social services and at choosing not to restore lost federal money for schools.

The governor angered others by trying to eliminate funds for arts and changing the ways judges are appointed.

So even in a strongly Republican state where Brownback helped engineer a conservative takeover of the Legislature just a year ago, there might be a hint of an opening for Democratic challenger Paul Davis in 2014.

Brownback remains the heavy favorite in conservative Kansas. Just one who maybe is not invincible.

Economist Arthur Laffer once described the Brownback agenda as a “revolution in a cornfield,” but the revolt could be turned back if early polls are accurate in suggesting that Kansans are growing disillusioned with the incumbent.

His job approval rating is low. So is his likeability rating. And a fresh poll already shows him trailing Davis, the Kansas House minority leader who represents part of Lawrence.

“It’s worse than I thought for Brownback,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University. “At this stage of a campaign, there is no way a state legislator should have this kind of competitiveness with an incumbent.”

Rackaway and other experts quickly note they see Brownback as more likely to win than lose. He’s a political brand name, and his re-election campaign looks to be well-financed.

And expect a strong effort to link the little-known Davis with President Barack Obama, who is highly unpopular in Kansas.

“In Sam Brownback, you have a man who is well known to the people of Kansas,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “His unrelenting focus on improving the Kansas economy and on K-12 and higher education will be recognized and rewarded by the people of Kansas.”

National political expert Larry Sabato rated Brownback as “safe” before the new head-to-head poll was released.

Inherently, Sabato said, Brownback takes political risks with an ideological agenda and a willingness to “break a lot of eggs” to bring his ideas to life.

Perhaps more importantly, Sabato said Brownback benefits from running in a heavily Republican state at a time when politics are so polarized.

“He may have mediocre ratings, but he has the most important letter in the alphabet for Kansas: ‘R,’” said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “That may be more important than the ratings.”

In the last 50 years, Kansas Democrats have enjoyed relative success electing governors in a Republican state. Since 1961, Kansans have elected six Republicans as governor and four Democrats.

Bill Graves is the only Republican re-elected governor since John Anderson Jr. served from 1961 to 1965 — a time when Kansas governors held the office for two-year terms. Graves served from 1995 to 2003.

But it’s still uncertain whether the state’s conservative shift has crippled the Democrats’ chances of winning back the governor’s mansion.

Kansas may be strongly Republican, but moderate GOP voters have had a history of teaming with Democrats if their party overreaches, said Mike Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University.

However, “I don’t know if that (alliance) can ever be restored,” he said.

Brownback’s polling numbers may be struggling because of his ambitious agenda to remake state government, said Edward Flentje, a political science professor at Wichita State University.

“To his credit, Brownback’s moved aggressively on a whole series of things, but that also has a downside,” Flentje said. “You start adding up the folks who he stepped on in one way or another, and it’s a growing assemblage.”

Since January 2012, polling done by SurveyUSA has shown Brownback with a job approval hovering near 35 percent with a disapproval rating approaching 50 percent.

New polls out last week signaled more trouble.

A poll released Friday showed Davis and his running mate, Jill Docking, leading the ticket of Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer 43 percent to 39 percent. The poll for Wichita television station KWCH surveyed 511 registered voters and had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Two other polls showed Brownback in a similar predicament.

One poll done at Fort Hays State surveyed 944 Kansas adults and found that 35 percent were satisfied with Brownback, down about five points from a similar survey last year. Even as Brownback pushed tax cuts to boost the economy, the state was split about 40-40 on the question of how satisfied residents were with the governor’s efforts to bolster the state’s fiscal health.

Another poll conducted by SurveyUSA showed Brownback with an approval rating of 34 percent. It surveyed 549 registered voters

Brownback’s top political lieutenant, David Kensinger, has long pushed back against negative poll numbers. He says they don’t reflect the governor’s popularity. Brownback, after all, has won four statewide races — three for the U.S. Senate, in 1996, 1998 and 2004; and one for governor m 2010.

“The governor's opponent is the partisan leader of the Democratic Caucus, the Nancy Pelosi of Kansas,” Kensinger wrote in an email, referring to the U.S. House minority leader from California. “We’re running hard on the Governor’s record of positive accomplishments. The people of Kansas prefer that record to the liberal agenda.”

Kensinger said the wrong conclusion could be drawn from polling on his candidate, pointing out it doesn’t always reflect the state’s voter registration. For instance, about 50 percent of the people surveyed on Brownback’s job approval in the Fort Hays State poll were independents. But only about 30 percent of the state’s voters are unaffiliated.

However, 47 percent of the voters surveyed in the head-to-head poll with Davis were Republicans. The state’s Republican registration is about 45 percent.

Earlier this year, the acclaimed FiveThirtyEight political blog — then with The New York Times — reported that Brownback was the fourth-most vulnerable governor going into next year’s elections. The author of that post also warned about reading too much into approval ratings.

“For a governor to lose re-election, it is not enough for him or her to be unpopular,” said Micah Cohen, senior editor at FiveThirtyEight, now owned by ESPN. “Their opponent matters, as does the partisanship of the state, as does the economy and the campaign.”

SurveyUSA polled on Davis and Docking, who ran for the U.S. Senate against Brownback in 1996. Both seem to have a lot of work to do to get their names out before next year.

The poll found that 78 percent either had no opinion about or were neutral toward Davis. Sixty-five percent of voters were similarly in the dark about Docking, even though her family is deeply established in Kansas politics.

Davis’ lack of statewide name identification might skew the numbers against Brownback because voters essentially don’t have anyone to compare against the incumbent, experts said. That will likely change in the heat of an election when the candidates start campaigning against each other.

But some experts were surprised that the numbers showed that Davis would already be competitive with Brownback.

“Brownback has to be worried,” Rackaway said. “That doesn’t mean he’s destined to lose. He could still pull away. It means Brownback is going to have to work a lot harder.”

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