OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Paul Davis, like a lot of other people in Kansas, saw the clip.
“The Daily Show” recently came to the state, and Kansas was the punchline. The resulting segment was full of the typical satirical touches, including a “Wizard of Oz” cutaway.
“Frankly, I’m getting tired,” Davis told Business Insider, “of watching Kansas be made fun of by late-night talk shows. And I think most Kansans have had about enough of it.”
Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor in Kansas (as well as its House Minority Leader), is mounting an unusually strong challenge to incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback was once viewed as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. But he has plunged in polls amid controversy over some of the economic and tax policies — which he once termed a “real, live experiment” — he has instituted during his first term as governor. According to recent polls, Davis leads a razor-thin race by a single percentage point.
Some of Davis’ staunchest backers in The Sunflower State are a robust group of moderate Republicans fed up with Brownback’s agenda. Which doesn’t surprise Davis in the least.
“We traditionally have had a model that Republicans and Democrats have used to grow the economy,” Davis said in an interview. “I think a lot of voters are just saying right now that Gov. Brownback just doesn’t understand how we’ve done things in Kansas and how we’ve been successful. And that’s why we’re seeing him in a lot of trouble.”
‘I’ll see what I can do’
By January, Wint Winter had already made up his mind.
Winter, a former Republican state senator, did not want his party’s incumbent governor, Republican Sam Brownback, to win a second term. And he was going to do whatever he could to stop it.
In January, Winter took a sabbatical from Peoples Bank in Overland Park, where he works as the CEO and general counsel. He had successfully helped restore the bank’s stability following the financial crisis.
He took a trip to Africa, but he spent the bulk of his sabbatical working and planning. It was during this period that he met with Davis, the eventual Democratic nominee for governor.
Winter asked Davis what he could do to help. Davis wanted to know more about a group Winter belongs to, Traditional Republicans for Common Sense. The group was formed in 2012 in an attempt to ward off special-interest groups — some of which were aligned with the Wichita, Kansas-native Koch brothers — that had entered into state races in an effort to support Republicans sympathetic to Brownback’s policies.
But Traditional Republicans for Common Sense had decided not to endorse in the governor’s race.
“Gee, Wint, if you can get them to endorse me or something, that would be great,” Davis told Winter.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Winter said.
That’s when he and former Senate president Dick Bond got the idea to start up a new group, Republicans for Kansas Values. Their goal was two-fold: either find a Republican who could compete with Brownback in the primary, or see what Davis had to offer.
Nine months later, Republicans for Kansas Values has more than 500 total members — including more than 180 former elected Republican officials. Winter, the founder and de-facto head of the group, says the group is fed up with three “I-words” he says describe Brownback — Incompetence, Intolerance, and Intimidation.
“Of course, politics is a gruelling activity,” Winter said in an interview in his office in Overland Park. “There are winners and losers. The winners get to project their policies. They’re due a lot of respect.
“But they aren’t generals in a war where they cut off their captives’ heads and send everybody to prison camp. So Sam’s view of governing is different than a lot of people’s.”
Two “P-words” sum up why the group lost faith in Brownback — his policies (in particular a package of tax cuts), and what the group calls a “purge.”
The governor’s tax plan was aggressive, to be sure. Among other things, it reduced overall income taxes and eliminated income taxes on small-business owners of qualified limited-liability corporations, “sub-chapter S” corporations, and sole proprietorships. The moderate Republicans thought the plan went too far and would fail to spur economic growth. Instead, they argued, it would cause Kansas’ budget to become unbalanced and necessitate severe budget cuts. It could even, they feared, bring about credit downgrades by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s — an eventuality that did in fact come to pass.
In all, 14 moderate Republicans revolted against the plan. It first died in the Senate, but was subsequently passed amid some confusion and legislative meandering that the moderates claim was executed in bad faith. Brownback denies that charge.
Either way, eight of the moderate Republicans were subsequently defeated in the 2012 primaries by more conservative challengers — sometimes by blowout margins. The moderates say Brownback actively supported their purge.
The campaigns were unlike anything Kansas state races had ever seen. Groups like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Wichita-native Koch brothers (who have become a chief Democratic villain in this year’s elections), helped rocket campaign spending to record levels.
Dick Kelsey, a former state senator who says he voted with Brownback more than 90% of the time while in the Senate, said he typically spent about $US35,000 to $US40,000 on his re-election campaigns.
During the 2012 race, he said, the spending against him reached more than $US200,000. He couldn’t even try to beat back what he calls “smears” that alleged he’d failed to pay some taxes. He recalled total strangers coming up to him and asking, “What’s wrong with you?”
“The nature of politics in Kansas has been poisoned for the next generation,” Kelsey says.
Steve Morris, the former Senate president who served under Brownback, was another target of the purge.
“None of us were used to that kind of campaigning — the ‘maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.’ It was just an onslaught of despicable attacks,” Morris said. “But it didn’t surprise me. The guy has a driven agenda, and it’s his way or the highway.”
Winter spent February through May working the phones.
One by one, Winter and others started to make progress. Morris and Kelsey were among the first to sign on, and they helped Winter and Bond recruit others to the cause. By July, the group decided it would have its coming-out party. Less than 24 hours before its first event, it secured its 100th commitment from a Republican.
“It was kind of like Tom Sawyer, getting the fence painted,” Winter said.
At that event at the end of July, the group formally endorsed Davis for governor. It hadn’t always been a foregone conclusion — Winter considered trying to tap Morris to mount a primary challenge, and he thought about running himself. Now, he says Davis is someone who, “today, is the right man for the job.”
“Paul’s a product of the Kansas Democratic party that is a moderate party,” Winter said. “We don’t produce Barack Obamas. We don’t produce the liberal people in Congress. Paul’s very competent, very thoughtful, and is one of a number of people who would be very good alternatives to Sam Brownback.”
Davis didn’t necessarily think he’d be here, either. He got his start in politics while an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, scoring an internship with then-Kansas Rep. Jim Slattery. In 1994, he joined the Slattery campaign for governor, which ended in landslide defeat.
Now 42 years of age, Davis has been in the House of Representatives since 2003. But running for governor was never at the top of his to-do list.
He didn’t “aspire to this,” one source close to the campaign told Business Insider. “He saw this as an opportunity, saw things were really bad, and stepped up to the challenge.”
Part of what spurred Davis to enter the race was his background as the son of two teachers who taught him that a good education is the single most important predictor of a good quality of life. Now, he has a 4-year-old son starting public school next year, and he is alarmed by the spending cuts to education.
“I want him to have the same kind of opportunities that I did — that so many Kansans have had,” Davis said.
Education is No. 1 on a “Top 10”-style list Republicans for Kansas Values released recently. It was emailed to reporters as a file attachment entitled “Why Brownback is bad.”
Among other things highlighted in the document, per-pupil spending on K-12 students plunged from $US4,012 in fiscal-year 2011, when Brownback took office, to $US3,852 in fiscal-year 2015. Funding for public university students has declined about $US200 per year since 2011, while tuition has gone up almost $US500 over that span. For the first time in a long while, no Kansas public university made the Princeton Review’s list of “Best Value Colleges.”
Carol Linnens, a former Republican state Board of Education member and a member of Republicans for Kansas Values, told Business Insider that schools are being squeezed, especially in rural districts. Music and art are being cut, teachers are paying out of pocket for supplies, and parent fees are up.
“Schools are the answer to everything,” Linnens said. “Everything. Sam has been very short-sighted on this. And Paul knows what it takes.”
If elected, Davis promised, he would have “probably the most bipartisan administration” in the history of the state. The fact that so many Republicans have openly and warmly embraced him gives some credence to the claim, and Winter believes a Davis administration would be more in line with the moderate tradition of most Kansans.
Winter was interviewed on “The Daily Show” when it came to town a few weeks ago. It was, he said, the “hardest interview I’ve ever done.”
But defeating Brownback, he said, would be well worth the effort. The status quo is simply unsustainable.
“Think about it. Close your eyes and imagine this,” Winter said, then following his own command.
“What if I told you, I’m going to describe a state, and you’re going to have to tell me whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats. And I’m going to tell you three things about that state. No. 1, they spend more than they bring in. No. 2, their credit has been downgraded. No. 3, their borrowing has increased.”
He doesn’t wait for answer.
“You would say Democrats!”
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