Incumbent Governor Sam Brownback narrowly defeated challenger Paul Davis after a race defined by the Kansas governor’s ambitious tax reforms.
Brownback, considered a presidential hopeful, became governor in 2010 after serving fifteen years as a U.S. senator. He took 63.28 percent of the vote that year, getting over twice as many votes as his Democrat opponent Tom Holland. This time he was neck and neck with Davis all night.
Two years into his term he signed one of the largest tax cuts in Kansas history into law, which slashed income taxes, increased the standard deduction and eliminated several individual tax credits. It also reduced taxes on small businesses. In 2013 he cut the income tax again, and introduced a measure that would slowly phase out the state income tax entirely in response to revenue growth.
Brownback hopes that his reforms would kick start Kansas’s sluggish economy into a job-generating powerhouse, and his boldness earned the attention of governors nationwide in what many tax warriors heralded as a new model for economic development that could be applied in states across the country. (RELATED: The Next Tax Reform Model For The Nation To Come From Kansas?)
Since then his approval rating has hovered in the 30s, about par with Kansans’ opinions of President Barack Obama. The morning of the election, 538 gave Davis an 80 percent chance of winning.
While nearly 60,000 private sector jobs have been created in Kansas since Brownback became governor, in May 2014 Moody’s downgraded the state’s bond rating, and a few months later Standard & Poor’s lowered its credit score from AA+ to AA, saying that there had not been significant enough cuts in spending to cover the tax cuts.
Defenders say the revenue shortfall was attributable not to the Kansas cuts, but to Obama administration tax policies that have suppressed the business climate nationwide.
Some voters were unconvinced, chafing at the idea that their lives had become part of an “experiment,” as Brownback infamously described his reform in 2012, and angry with perceived cuts in education spending, though as the Wichita Eagle explained “total funding for education in fiscal year 2015 is more than $6 billion compared with $5.6 billion the year Brownback took office.”
Davis had been leading Brownback all summer, although Brownback clawed his way back to a mere one point gap behind Kansas State Rep. Paul Davis in the days leading up to the election. Davis, a California native, has served in the Kansas House since 2003, before which he worked under Kathleen Sebelius when she was Kansas’s Insurance Commissioner.
Former KS Gov Sebelius at @PaulDavisKS watch party. She says she's confident he will win tonight. #kwch12 #ksgov pic.twitter.com/aLjZoX6bSi
— Jade DeGood (@KWCHJade) November 5, 2014
Davis, a lawyer, caught some flak earlier this fall after it was revealed that when a Kansas strip club was raided for methamphetamines in 1998, Davis was in a back room receiving a lap dance from a topless stripper. Davis wasn’t just there for recreational purposes, however–the club’s owner was one of his clients.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said in response.
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, told The Daily Caller that while many are trying to spin the election as a referendum on whether tax reform works, “it’s more about what tax reform represents.”
“Allowing citizens to benefit from lower taxes means government must provide services at a better price, but that means there are fewer spoils to divide among those who profit from government spending, and that diminishes the power of those in office,” he said. “There are a lot of people in government and representing special interests who are oppose the shift in culture from a government that is focused special interests to one that focuses on citizens and provides the same or better quality of service at a better price.”
Moderate Republicans came out in force for Davis, who has been the Kansas House Minority Leader since 2008. Kansas has long been considered a red state, although its longstanding support for Republican presidential candidates (it hasn’t gone blue in a national election since 1964) belies the centrist tendencies of the Sunflower State’s GOP.
More hardline Republicans tried to make the case that slow economic recovery was par for the course in Kansas, and that Brownback’s reforms would produce solid economic gains, but only if given time to develop. Trabert explained that many of the reforms were aimed at making Kansas a friendlier state for businesses, and that it’s naive to expect businesses to relocate immediately.
“Claims of Kansas struggling economically are political distortions,” he said. “Kansas had better private sector job growth in 2013 than Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.”
Although Brownback is not known as a culture warrior, he quietly converted to Catholicism in 2002, with fellow Senator Rick Santorum as his sponsor in the Church. He has five children, including a daughter he adopted from China and a son he adopted from Guatemala.
Brownback spent the day thanking campaign volunteers and supporters in Topeka and Johnson County.