Political experts around the nation unexpectedly declared Gov. Sam Brownback, a long-time Kansas Republican, doomed for re-election just a few weeks ago. With only two weeks until election day, the race between Brownback and his Democratic opponent, State Rep. Paul Davis, has now dramatically tightened to a pure toss-up. Although essentially tied, momentum appears to be with Brownback, demonstrated by recent polling. Skeptical Republicans are beginning to come back home to Brownback. Once-confident Democrats are now forced to face a glaring reality — the opportunity for a victory in Kansas appears to be fading.
After 14 years as a senator and a single term as governor, Brownback has demonstrated exactly why he has survived for this long: he is an incredibly savvy politician. Trouble began brewing for Brownback when over 100 Republican elected officials endorsed Davis. This cataclysmic split in the state GOP can be attributed largely to Brownback alienating the moderate wing of his party by championing a variety of controversial policies, including decreasing the education budget. Capitalizing on this opportunity in a deep-red state, Davis’ centrist campaign quickly captured the support of moderate Republicans, giving the Democrat a consistent string of big leads in the polls.
Although Brownback was down, he was certainly not out. When reports surfaced that Davis was caught receiving a lap dance during a drug raid on a strip club in the 1990s, the dynamic of the race changed completely. While Davis might have survived the blowback of this scandal elsewhere, the social conservative tilt of the heartland of America is sinking his campaign. Bolstered by a new onslaught of GOP-aligned ads in the similarly competitive Senate race, Republicans appear to be regaining their footing in both statewide races. Rebounding from massive poll deficits, Brownback had the lead or tied in four consecutive public surveys, which is a dramatic shift in an incredibly short period of time.
While the sudden competitiveness in Kansas may be shocking to some due the Republican lean of the state, Democrats have controlled the Governor’s Mansion in Kansas more often than the GOP in recent history. Former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is a Democrat, was elected to two terms as Governor about a decade ago, having taken advantage of a comparable split between Republican moderates and conservatives. While Davis could certainly still emerge victorious in a similar manner come Nov. 4, Brownback has proven his durability as a skilled politician, and the once-troubled incumbent now appears a modest favorite headed into the final campaign stretch.
A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 20 print edition. Email Johnpaul Baratta at [email protected]