The Republican coalition headed by Gov. Sam Brownback prevailed with Kansas voters on Election Day. The governor fought off a fierce challenge from House Minority Leader Paul Davis and his running mate, Jill Docking.
The Republican victory was aided by a national mood that turned the U.S. Senate red, made the U.S. House redder, and flipped four governorships and even more state legislative chambers from blue to red.
Ironically, the Kansas Supreme Court – the object of severe criticism by the Republican coalition – handed Brownback and his legislative allies two potent political favors. The court’s order on school finance last spring allowed state lawmakers to respond with modest but increased funding of education, property tax reductions and “educational reforms.” Then, just weeks before the election, the court vacated death sentences for the Carr brothers, causing family members and all Kansans to relive one of the most heinous crimes in the state’s history. The Brownback campaign, as well as outside groups, jumped on both court orders to take advantage with a barrage of media.
Regrettably, Kansans will also never know the source of “dark” money that financed the largely anonymous Alliance for Freedom, a group that spent millions in paid media favoring Brownback.
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Even so, Brownback fell just short of tallying 50 percent of the gubernatorial vote and recorded 100,000 fewer votes than he had logged in 2010.
Based on preliminary results, the coalition also knocked off three more incumbent House Democrats and gained open seats, giving Republicans a 98-27 majority in the Kansas House, the largest margin in more than 60 years.
Brownback defied polls consistently showing that more than half of those surveyed disapproved of his job performance and indicating he was headed for defeat. Indeed, in 23 statewide polls conducted over the past five months, he trailed in all but three.
Brownback also overcame a chorus of critics who pointed to his tax experiment that has brought on deficit spending, depleted balances, downgraded credit, higher sales taxes and property taxes, lagging economic growth, and inadequate funding of the state’s primary obligation, public education. The governor asserted in response that education was adequately funded, the economy was growing, and economic progress would deal with any future budget woes.
Reality in state finance will hit immediately this week when revenue estimators meet and update revenue projections made last April that were dramatically off the mark.
However Brownback steers through the looming financial crisis, his governing coalition will remain intact. That coalition has been described as an opportunistic alliance of voters who believe in economic liberty on the one hand and social order on the other. Economic liberty is translated into state policy as smaller government through tax cuts, budget cuts and restraints, and freedom from governmental regulation. Social order takes the form of policies that restrict abortion, limit gay rights, curb social services and restrict access to voting.
Over the past four years, Brownback and his coalition largely ignored and occasionally attacked centrist Republicans who did not join up in the polar alliance. These Republicans likely comprise much of the 100,000-vote drop in Brownback’s vote tallies from 2010 to 2014. Where centrist Republicans now go, as well as how the governor responds to them, will write the next chapter in state politics.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.