If confirmed by the Senate, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will be leaving his job before his term expires. In the 152 years since Kansas achieved statehood, only one other governor, Kathleen Sebelius, has left office with this much time left to serve.
The first important aspect to understanding Brownback not only as governor but as a political figure lies in one of his bedrock phrases, which he used in a TV ad when running for U.S. Senate in 1996 and again in his State of the State address in 2013: “We’re each placed on this earth for a reason, and a short season.” Brownback has always been a man in a hurry to change the world, understanding that he only had a “short season” to do it: Kansas Secretary of Agriculture at age 30, Congressman at age 38, U.S. Senator by age 40, and then the finale, running for president in 2008. Except, of course, that he did not win the presidency. He would have to find another way.
That way presented itself in 2010, when he left Washington to run for governor of Kansas. His campaign themes were anodyne and uncontroversial. In one TV ad, he spelled out his “Roadmap for Kansas” as a focus on growing the economy, improving education and protecting families. He reassured voters that he wasn’t coming back to the state to remake it but just to get it back on track. In another TV ad, he cited Smith Center football coach Roger Barta’s ideas as inspiration for his leadership style. One of those ideas: “Don’t take mammoth steps. Take little ones the right way.” Of course, little steps do not a revolution make.
The second important aspect to understanding Brownback comes from his seminal 2013 State of the State address, in which he stated his goal to make the state of Kansas into a model of conservatism. “Our place, Kansas, will not be timid in doing what is right, even if much of the nation takes another way,” he said, and “Our state is going against the tide.” He argued in that speech that Kansas would be the conservative beacon for the nation following the re-election of Democratic president Barack Obama. Said Brownback, “Our place, Kansas, will show the path, the difficult path, for America to go in these troubled times.”
Those two aspects of Brownback frame his governorship. He undertook, in conjunction with the Legislature and other conservative state leaders, mammoth steps to pursue an ambitious conservative agenda: wiping out moderate Republican senators in the 2012 primaries, privatizing Kancare, eliminating public school teachers’ due process, expanding concealed carry laws in public spaces, authorizing voter ID and proof of citizenship laws, refusing to take over $1 billion in federal Medicaid money, changing how judges are chosen and opposing Washington on issues ranging from prairie chickens to taking Syrian immigrants. Most famously, Brownback pushed through massive income and business tax cuts and a complete scrapping of the Kansas K-12 school funding formula.
Brownback’s legacy is inexorably tied to the 2012 income tax and business tax cuts. The sheer scale of those cuts made him a conservative revolutionary, but also the state’s biggest gambler. He gambled that supply side economics would work and that the tax cuts would be so successful as to bring a windfall of money to the state. He also gambled that if the Kansas budget did fall into trouble, the Legislature and voters of Kansas would support cutting the budget and waiting for the economic boom that he said would come from the tax cuts. He lost that gamble.
Despite his regret at making the statement, Brownback’s legacy will also be tied to his early characterization of the tax cuts as a “real-live experiment.” Kansas became an experiment in shaping a state into a conservative example for a “wayward nation.” By the last two years of his governorship, however, opinion polls showed that a majority of Kansans were tired of the experiment and wanted Brownback to end it. He refused, and the indelible image of his governorship will be him standing with his vision to the last and seeing his veto overridden on the repeal of the tax cuts.
Gov. Brownback stuck to his guns. He didn’t back down on his core tax policies. The new, more moderate Legislature, emboldened by its veto override, would no doubt have made it impossible for Brownback to make bold changes in his last year in office. As he himself believes, the “season is short,” and so he must move on. For Brownback, there’s still much to do, just not in Kansas.
Bob Beatty is a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka.