Opening a newspaper must be depressing for Gov. Sam Brownback of late. Bad news abounds.
Jason Probst, a news editor at The Hutchinson News, scathingly eulogized the state of Kansas in a recent editorial while laying blame at the feet of Brownback’s conservative agenda, while other high-profile Kansans, like former elected official Bill Roy, have jumped on board the anti-Brownback bandwagon.
Revenues dwindle, budgets are decimated, and the governor’s approval rating hovers in the mid-30s. New York Times pundit Nate Silver proclaimed Brownback the fourth-most-vulnerable gubernatorial re-election candidate for 2014, behind marked men like Illinois’ Pat Quinn and Florida’s Rick Scott. Brownback has an ace in the hole, and likely will cruise to re-election. His supposed vulnerability assumes a strong challenge. For the same reason, Pat Roberts will win re-election, so Brownback appears almost equally poised.
The opposition research on Brownback is well-established: firebrand conservative who wants to privatize as much of government as possible and create a theocratic libertarian utopia. Taxes are hacked, and only accounting tricks can make core budget items like education and social services appear to be held harmless. The outlook looks bleaker the longer one projects into the future.
Being compared to Scott and Quinn, the nation’s two least popular governors, should be cause for alarm. Quinn already has a scion of Chicago’s most powerful political family, Bill Daley, ready to primary him. Former Republican Charlie Crist has lined up to challenge Scott. And those are just the early bird candidates. Florida is a swing state, and the still-popular Crist is running as a Democrat against Republican Scott. Quinn’s situation is more analogous to Brownback’s, because he is an unpopular governor in a one-party state. Surely, then, Brownback must have a coterie of ambitious candidates ready to separate him from the job. Not so fast.
Illinois Democrats are not the homogenous lot that Kansas Republicans are. The monolithic character of Kansas Republicans today is the craftwork of Brownback himself. By decimating the center-right wing of the party in 2012, Brownback has neutralized the money and support base that any Republican hoping to mount a serious challenge against him would need. Jean Schodorf or Tim Owens would be likely candidates, but neither of them has the statewide name recognition or campaign apparatus that could remotely hope to compete with Brownback’s already-humming re-election effort. The Brownback machine has not stopped since winning in 2010 and shows no signs of slowing.
National-level Republicans fare no better. In a February Public Policy Polling survey, Pat Roberts was matched up against both U.S. Congressman Tim Huelskamp and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Both came up wanting and would against Brownback too. The governor clearly has cemented himself as the Kansas Republican Party.
Things look just as bleak on the other side of the aisle. Kathleen Sebelius likely will not return to run again for Kansas’ governor’s office, and Mark Parkinson had one of the weakest popularity results in the PPP poll. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is an option, but the most serious candidate has the famed last name Docking. Jill Docking began a blog on Kansas politics this year with support from a powerful Democratic campaign entity. With family name recognition, ability to fundraise and no real intra-party challenge clearing the path to nomination, Docking appears to be the only threat to the governor.
Blogging about the governor is a good start, but Docking also will need to see a revival of the state Democratic Party to match the fundraising and mobilization efforts that characterized a resurrected Kansas GOP in 2010. The best candidate to oppose Brownback therefore does not control her own destiny, making Brownback perhaps the least vulnerable of the United States’ most vulnerable governors in 2014.
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.