During the past week, you might have detected a lightness in the steps of Kansas Democrats, an elated glow that can only mean white smoke has emerged from Suite 404 of 700 W. Jackson St. in Topeka and a presumptive gubernatorial nominee for 2014 has been selected. After struggling to find anyone interested in running in 2010 and settling for an uninspiring candidate, state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, the party has a head start on its effort to unseat Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in the guise of Lawrence state Rep. Paul Davis. Like many highs, though, this will be temporary with a wicked hangover. Davis has merely volunteered, to paraphrase Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” to take a knife into a gunfight.
Davis, who emerged after neither Democratic scion Jill Docking nor former State Rep. Josh Svaty entered, has a clear path to nomination, but a fraught road to the governor’s mansion at Cedar Crest. Kansas City Star columnist Steve Kraske had to start his profile by asking the reader to assume Davis has a path to victory. Even Kraske seemed uncertain the path existed. Kraske chalks Davis’ chances up to money, and while cash is a necessary part of any successful campaign, it is never sufficient. Money can be raised, as Kathleen Sebelius’ presence in the state last week shows. For Davis to be competitive, he has to remember a basic tenet of successful campaigns: Give the voters reason to support you and to dislike your opponent.
Holland’s 2010 gubernatorial bid provides an important lesson. The Democrat took half of my suggested approach during his failed attempt: He told everyone that Brownback was evil. But Holland never established himself as a superior option. To a skeptical/cynical public, that story comes across as “I’m not very good, but have you seen what a piece of work my opponent is?” Voters don’t want to hold their noses casting a ballot for the least of all evils, though. Voters want to be inspired, and tacitly admitting Holland had no vision was a sure road to oblivion.
Holland made the same mistake Davis appears poised to make: assuming all of Kansas hates Brownback as much as he does.
Brownback is not beloved: SurveyUSA’s most recent poll had the governor at 37 percent approval. The number is low, but more a measure of the public’s general dissatisfaction with politics as he was still within five points of Kansas’ most popular official, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. Brownback is less vulnerable than the numbers appear, especially because of the public’s generally negative attitude. Everyone hates most politicians, so only the rarest of elected officials today rate highly.
The Democratic strategy has been based on telling voters Brownback is a terrible human being incapable of compassion or reason. Quite simply, that’s an untenable proposition against almost anyone except Anthony Weiner. Even those who disagree with the governor’s plans do not doubt his sincerity or intent. People might diverge over methods, but few voters who aren’t registered Democrats doubt his character. The “Evil Brownback” strategy is a loser without an authentic voice behind it.
To be competitive, Davis must dial back the rhetoric of his campaign announcement video and establish himself first. Attacks are always more credible when the source earns legitimacy with the audience. Davis needs to learn from Holland and not lead with attacks. Without a balanced approach, Davis is beaten before he begins.
Davis must give voters a reason to vote for him, and only then can he give them the reasons to vote against Brownback. Being of the same party as President Obama means Davis starts deep in a hole with most Kansans. And when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Dr. Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor in the political science department at Fort Hays State University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.