Why Are a Conservative Governor and Conservative Senate Candidate Struggling in Kansas?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 31 2014 8:58 AM

Why Are a Conservative Governor and Conservative Senate Candidate Struggling in Kansas?

While the national media's attention drifted elsewhere there's evidence that the modern conservative insurgency has found its limits in one of America's most reliably right-wing states. The Republican Party has controlled Kansas' legislature for a generation, but for a long time a moderate faction held off the most conservative bills. That changed in 2012, with the assiduous (and pricey) efforts to oust moderates in primaries. One-third of the Senate GOP caucus went down after the Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity battered them on the air. In 2013 Gov. Sam Brownback had the votes to dramatically slash income tax rates, while keeping sales taxes above 6 percent.

How's it working? Well, unusually for a governor who's returning money to taxpayers, Brownback has become terribly unpopular. In the last year, Public Policy Polling found his approval rating sinking from 37 percent to 33 percent. As of last month, he trailed Democrat Paul Davis in his 2014 re-election bid. Brownback might have recovered since then, but the major legislation voters became aware of was the pioneering "religious freedom" bill that codified the right to deny service to gays.

This is news from a few weeks ago. I'm reminded of it because Dave Helling has a piece, in Politico, about Milton Wolf's aspirational Tea Party primary challenge of Sen. Pat Roberts. It is not going well, but it has nothing to do with Wolf's conservatism. It's just been easy for Roberts to tack right. But surely it doesn't help that the state's just passed conservative dream legislation and people don't like it. Over the last few days, conservatives in the state have tried to rebut and deride data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive-leaning think tank, that branded the tax cuts as failures based on the lack of new revenue and the steep cuts to services. Kansas could, I guess, point to the state's low unemployment numbers as proof that the cuts are working.

But Kansas' unemployment rate has dropped by 0.7 points since the passage of the tax cuts, a bit below the median. California, that eternal punching bag for conservative governors, has seen its unemployment rate drop twice as fast in the same period of time. The theory behind steep income tax cuts in a state is that business is going to race over the border to take advantage, and that revenue will recover quickly. If that's not happening, it's tough to be a conservative crusader—tough to convince voters that the porridge that's melting through the table simply isn't hot enough.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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