More than 100 current and former Republican officials formally endorsed Democrat Paul Davis for governor on Tuesday at a Topeka event that organizers said was unprecedented in Kansas politics.
Speaking for the newly formed group, Republicans for Kansas Values, former Sen. Wint Winter of Lawrence said the mass endorsement was prompted by growing concerns among moderate Republicans about the effect of Brownback’s tax and budget policies on public schools, highways, universities, social services and the Kansas economy.
“Governor Brownback’s radical style of leadership lacks Kansas common sense,” Winter said. “It hurts our schools, weakens our financial condition and it fails to create jobs at the rate of our neighboring states.”
Brownback and the conservative Republicans who control the Legislature cut state income taxes, believing that would help create record numbers of new jobs. However, the lower rates, which are still being phased in, have so far not produced the promised results.
Brownback has said that the more than 50,000 private-sector jobs created in Kansas since he took office in 2011 are evidence that the tax cuts are starting to work. But his critics point to several recent reports that show Kansas lagging the nation and most of its neighboring states in job growth and several other measures of economic vitality.
Meanwhile, there is little dispute that the tax cuts have contributed to steep declines in state revenue collections. In the final three months of the budget year that ended June 30, collections totaled nearly $340 million less than expected even though projections already had been lowered to account for the tax cuts. Official projections show the state spending through its reserves in the current budget year, possibly forcing legislators to cut spending to balance the budget.
Brownback has blamed recent changes in federal tax rates for the steepness of the decline. But Winter, a former vice chair of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, rejected that explanation.
“Any attempt by Sam Brownback to blame the mess that he’s created on the president is a cynical effort to avoid responsibility for his record and hide from his policies,” Winter said.
Recently, there has been a spate of stories in major national news outlets about the Brownback tax cuts and their impact on state revenues and the governor’s race.
Former Senate President Dick Bond of Overland Park, who also served as chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, said he and the other Republicans gathered behind him on risers – including Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger – decided it was time to put the interests of their state ahead of their party.
“The decision to endorse a Democratic candidate for governor is a big step for every one of us, a big departure from our Republican roots,” Bond said. “We do not make this decision lightly.”
In brief remarks, Davis said he was humbled by the endorsements and pledged a bipartisan approach to governing if elected.
“All of us standing here today, and folks all across this state, know that Kansas can do better,” Davis said. “We can have better schools and a stronger economy. It will mean working together and embracing compromise. But ultimately, we can put Kansas back on the right track.”
Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, noted that several of the former officerholders who endorsed Davis were defeated in 2012 by more conservative candidates.
“The Kansas Republican Party is disappointed that these former officials, many of whom were thrown out by Kansas voters, have decided to endorse the Obama agenda,” Arnold said, in keeping with the Brownback campaign’s strategy to tie Davis to the unpopular Democratic president. “Almost all of them served in the past, and their principles are defined by higher taxes and bigger government. Kansans have rejected their big-government ideas before, and Kansans will reject their big-government, Democrat agenda in November.”
Clay Barker, executive director of the party, said the Republicans endorsing Davis are “oblivious to the profound shift in the beliefs of Kansas voters.”
Fred Kerr, a Pratt farmer who served in the Kansas Senate for 16 years – including four as majority leader – before leaving in 1992 to prepare for an unsuccessful run for governor, said he believes he’s still in touch with the constituents he once served. He said many of them are concerned, as he is, that Brownback’s tax cuts are threatening years of investments in public education and infrastructure.
“I believe strongly in a fair and balanced tax system, and he (Brownback) has distorted that in favor of the wealthy,” Kerr said. “I believe in strong public schools, and they are being eroded. And I worked hard on a strong highway program, and those funds are being confiscated for other purposes.”
Funding of public education is the top issue for many of the moderate Republicans who endorsed Davis, particularly those from Johnson County. Their backing of Davis could be an indication that moderate GOP voters aren’t inclined to give Brownback much credit for supporting a $129 million education funding plan passed by the 2014 Legislature in response to a Kansas Supreme Court order.
Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin was among the Davis supporters who attended Tuesday’s event. He acknowledged that endorsements often don’t carry much weight with voters but said the backing of so many prominent Republicans could be a difference-maker for Davis.
“It’s historical,” said Carlin, who headed the National Archives after leaving the governor’s office in 1990. “If they walk away today and this is it, it will be a news story for political types who follow politics, but it won’t reach the masses. But if come November the 4th the message is out there that these respected Republican leaders are for the Davis/Docking ticket, it will have a significant impact.”
Jill Docking, of Wichita, is Davis’ lieutenant governor running mate. The wife of former Lt. Gov. Tom Docking, she lost a 1996 U.S. Senate race to Brownback.
On Monday, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum endorsed Brownback at campaign events in Olathe and Wichita. At the Olathe event, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania seemed to acknowledge that Brownback was in a tighter race than many expected.
"We need to rally behind this man. This man is a visionary," Santorum said. "This shouldn't be a race. We all need to get to it. We need this to be a decisive, big win. It's only going to happen if you give all."
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute.