Sam Brownback of Kansas might not be the easiest Republican governor for Democrats to beat in November. But he would be among the most satisfying.
The Brownback administration's refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars, massive tax cuts and slashes in social spending - opposed by even some fellow Kansas Republicans - have made this race competitive. And it's one of the nation's most conservative states, where Republicans have a hammerlock on state government and hold all the congressional seats.
Brownback in November will face the Democratic nominee, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis. He will be aided by what Daily Kos Elections Editor David Nir calls Brownback's obsession with irresponsible tax cuts.
Thanks to these fundamentally crazy cuts, Kansas' revenues have fallen far short of expectations (just 56 percent of projections in April and May, for instance), further reductions in spending on priorities like education are all but assured.
And it doesn't help that Brownback recently referred to his efforts as a 'real live experiment.' Treating Kansans as though they're just unenlightened subjects in a sadistic test dreamed up by glibertarian college Republicans on an all-night Ayn Rand bender is not going over well, which explains why Brownback's doing so terribly in the polls. A measure of sanity may yet be restored to Brownbackistan.
New York Times "Upshot" writer Josh Barro explains the policy implications of Brownback's tax-cutting agenda.
Kansas has a problem. In April and May, the state planned to collect $651 million from personal income tax. But instead, it received only $369 million.
In 2012, Kansas lawmakers passed a large and rather unusual income tax cut. It was expected to reduce state tax revenue by more than 10 percent, and Gov. Sam Brownback said it would create 'tens of thousands of jobs.'
In part, the tax cut worked in the typical way, by cutting tax rates and increasing the standard deduction. But Kansas also eliminated tax on various kinds of income, including income described commonly - and sometimes misleadingly - as 'small-business income.' Basically, if your income results in the generation of a Form 1099-MISC instead of a W-2, it's probably not taxable anymore in Kansas.
Brownback's Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, is a lawyer who has served in the Kansas House of Representatives since 2003. He contends that Kansas should stop cutting taxes until base state aid for education is restored to pre-recession levels, the Wichita Eagle reported recently.
Davis said he would freeze income tax rates at their 2015 levels: 4.6 percent for the top bracket and 2.7 percent for the lower bracket. Under Gov. Sam Brownback's plan, the lower rate is slated to drop to 2.4 percent in 2016, and the top rate is set to fall to 3.9 percent in 2018.
Brownback has compared the tax cuts to surgery. Davis honed in on this metaphor. "Then our first job is to stop the bleeding," he said.
Davis, 41, called for the formation of a bipartisan commission on tax policy aimed at lowering local property taxes, strengthening incentives for job growth and ensuring accountability in the tax code.
This approach by Davis seems to be making an impact. The most recent Real Clear Politics poll average, wrapping in three surveys between Feb. 18 and June 23, has Davis up narrowly, 43% to 42.7% for Brownback.
Defeating Brownback would be a boon to Democrats nationally. Since taking over the governorship three-and-a-half years ago he's become a symbol of what critics call a reckless tax cut agenda. Davis's campaign is confident that it can defy a national political environment that's hostile to Democrats by keeping the race focused on state issues.
And Democrats have had some relatively recent success in 2002 and 2006, when Kathleen Sebelius won two terms as governor before moving on to head Health and Human Services.
Brownback had up until now seemed like a good fit for conservative Kansas. He rode the 2010 Republican wave. "After 14 years in the U.S. Senate and a brief 2008 run for president, was elected governor 63%-32," writes the 2014 Almanac of American Politics.
Brownback, 57, wasted no time implementing a conservative agenda, the Almanac adds.
In office, Brownback and the legislature cut spending, abolished three state agencies, closed welfare offices and eliminated arts funding. The governor established an Office of the Repealer, to recommend the repeal of obsolete statutes.
That approach may have run its course. Davis just may be able to thread the needle in what Democrats now view increasingly as a statehouse pick-up opportunity.
Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark is author, with Chuck McCutcheon, of Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Slang, Jargon and Bluster of American Political Speech, to be released on Sept. 2, 2014. He is also author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.