What’s the matter with Kansas?
Politically, everything. The problems illustrated by Thomas Frank in one of the best political books ever have only gotten worse in the decade and change since its publication. Sam Brownback, looming figurehead of the corporate-backed “populist” movement known as the Tea Party, became governor of Kansas in 2011, and brought with him a comprehensive mandate in one of the nation’s reddest states. He could do whatever the hell he wanted, and that’s exactly what he did, and Kansas became a living experiment in what happens when “small government” ideologues like Brownback have total control.
In short, he decimated the state. I highly recommend you spend some time reading the various excellent articles about how he led his state to total economic ruin, but here’s the situation short:
—With tax cuts for the wealthy, Brownback managed to deprive the state of $680 million in income tax revenue by 2016, and $570 million in total tax revenue, compared to three years earlier. This was caused in large part by massive cuts, and in some cases wholesale repeals, of taxes on LLCs.
—Amazingly, after screwing things up so badly, state Republicans approved the largest tax hike in state history in 2015, which didn’t begin to cover the budget shortfall.
—At the end of the fiscal year 2016, the budget was so screwed up that the state government had to withhold $260 million from public schools in order to balance it, which was only the latest gigantic cut schools suffered under Brownback’s tenure. By 2015, he had also gutted highway spending and money allotted for Medicaid coverage.
—Meanwhile, the economy sputtered and stalled, contrary to the idea that the huge tax cuts would somehow magically make it grown, Reaganomics-style.
—In the midst of the huge cuts to schools and other public institutions, Brownback pushed through a bill that punished the State Supreme Court (by abolishing its powers to appoint chief judges) in a clear act of retribution for the court’s decision to actually hold him accountable for denying equitable funding to public schools, particularly those in low-income areas.
—When that bill was found unconstitutional, Brownback actually managed to defund all state courts, before finally backing down.
—He has twice halted economic reports that were sure to make him look bad, most recently in September 2016.
—Lastly, per KansasCity.com, as a nice summary:
To keep the costly tax cuts in place, Brownback and state officials have diverted more than $1 billion from highway repairs, sliced tens of millions in funds for universities, delayed a nearly $100 million payment for public employee pensions and imposed across-the-board cuts on state agencies.
It’s a nightmare, but here’s the thing: It’s also Kansas, where conventional wisdom says that electing anything other than a Republican is a total pipe dream. That’s why, until very recently, national Democrats gave almost no support, fiscal or otherwise, to James Thompson. Thompson is the Democrat running to fill Mike Pompeo’s vacant House seat (he was appointed by Trump to head the CIA) in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, which encompasses Wichita. Donald Trump won this district by a whopping 27 points in November, so it wasn’t completely bonkers for national Democrats to look at Thompson’s chance with cynicism, but, lo and behold, recent polls showed the race tightening.
Suddenly, at the final hour, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee snapped into action, calling homes, sending money, and generally behaving like they wanted to win—even as Thompson derided the “establishment thinking” that led to them ignoring his campaign in the first place. Voters have followed suit, spurred on by Daily Kos, Democracy for Action, and Our Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of donations.
Republicans have responded with lots of their own money, of course, plus special campaign efforts by Ted Cruz and Mike Pence, and even a tweet from the big man himself:
So, the election is today, and Kansans have a chance to actually take a stand against a climate of economic ruin and an ideology that punishes ordinary Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Will they do it? It’s still a longshot, and even though an internal Republican poll showed a margin of just one point in favor of Estes, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine a Democrat actually managing to win. Even so, a close loss would indicate a national trend away from Trump, and—who knows?—might even hint at a future where Kansas can begin to cast off the specter of Brownback and finally get its political shit together.