Governing in the Red: The Sinking Fortunes of Sam Brownback

Sam Brownback’s greatest comfort this evening may be the calendar on his desk reminding him that it’s only August. After weeks of bad economic and political news, the formerly-popular governor is trailing his opponent by 10 points and appears to be in the most difficult fight of his political career. As the incumbent Republican in a conservative state, it’s certainly possible that Brownback can recover, but for now he appears increasingly vulnerable, and Kansas has emerged as a surprising pick-up opportunity for the Democrats.

The primary cause of Brownback’s electoral malaise is his economic agenda, which he strongly promoted after winning office in a 31-point landslide. It included a steep reduction in state income taxes, sales tax, and certain small-business taxes. The governor predicted that, in accordance with the prophecies of supply-side economics, these tax savings would immediately be converted to economic growth, as people moved to hire out-of-work Kansans with their tax savings. Unfortunately for Brownback and the people of Kansas, this prediction has yet to come to fruition. Additionally, state tax revenues have fallen sharply this year, and economists are predicting large budget shortfalls in the future. The state may also face higher borrowing costs after both S&P and Moody’s downgraded the state’s bonds. S&P’s explanation for the downgrade didn’t do Brownback any favors, as the ratings agency said the state had “a structurally unbalanced budget” and that there would be “additional budget pressure as income tax cuts scheduled in future years go into effect.”

In addition to the current and future budget shortfalls, the job market in Kansas is hardly roaring. The unemployment rate has been relatively constant since the beginning of the year, and job growth during Brownback’s tenure has been lower than that of most neighboring states. Although the governor is fond of discussing the number of private sector jobs he has created, his job numbers exclude over 8,000 public sector employees who have lost their jobs. Regardless of one’s believes about the proper size of government, an unemployed government worker is still an unemployed worker. Brownback’s narrative of prosperity also benefits somewhat from the fact that his term began in January 2011, just as the economy was beginning to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. When you consider that the baseline for his cherry-picked stats is one of the worst periods in U.S. economic history, the tepid numbers become even less impressive.

Brownback has always been a politician with an ability to adapt himself to the prevailing political currents. When he was elected to the Senate in 1996, he was seen less as a conservative ideologue than as a candidate who identified with Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, the two relatively moderate Kansas Senators who represented the state alongside each other for nearly two decades. During his tenure in the Senate, however, Brownback became a leading voice of the Christian right at a time when the movement was gaining power within the Republican Party. After an easily forgotten presidential bid in 2007, Brownback left the Senate to run for governor of Kansas. Since taking office, he has made more headlines for this staunchly conservative economic agenda than for his moral crusades. Perhaps hoping that he would be able to embody the anti-government zeal that has consumed his party, Brownback has embraced tax-cutting policies that are more radical than those of conservative stars such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Paul Ryan, his former legislative director. Brownback’s idea may have been to build his credentials as a champion of limited-government so he could position himself for another long-shot presidential bid or, at the very least, a second term as governor. Unfortunately for him, his polls have sunk steadily along with the state’s revenue projections.

Aside from the implications for statewide government and Brownback’s political future, the situation is Kansas is an interesting case-study in conservative governance. As a popular Senator who had just returned home after a landslide victory, Brownback had a great opportunity to put it ideas into action and has taken advantage of it. He’s cut taxes, assailed the size of government, and enacted policies that even Jim DeMint could approve of. In an era where the Republican Party oscillates between obstruction and inaction, Brownback has actually sought to govern. Now the only problem is the disastrous results.