"The legislature has certainly moved right," Peck says. "I've always believed Kansas voters were right of center – basically where I am – but in the past, a lot of conservative voters didn't get out to vote, I think partly because of the choice of candidates." Nationally, he thinks the problem in 2012 was simple: "We weren't conservative enough. The establishment is what cost us that election, and Karl Rove needs to go away. As far as the soul searching, it's like, good grief, guys, let someone else take over. We'll find our way."
Of course, for strategists like Rove, loose-talking Republicans like Peck – who casually refers to the president as "Barack Hussein Obama" during our conversation – are precisely the reason swing voters are being spooked by the GOP. Peck remains unmoved. "What bothers me is there are places in America that have gone so far to the left that they'd look at us as nutcases," he says pleasantly. "I consider us in Kansas mainstream America – normal, red-blooded Americans who believe in the Constitution of the United States. Yes, we're conservative, but we're not a bunch of gun-toting cowboys." A few moments later, he slides his chair back, and the wheel makes a loud cracking sound when it hits the plastic floor coaster. "That wasn't gunshots, by the way!" he cackles.
Brownback himself made his name as "God's Senator," to quote the headline of a 2006 Rolling Stone profile – becoming infamous for doing things like holding up a drawing of an embryo during a Senate debate on stem-cell research and asking, "Are you going to kill me?" Last December, he made an official proclamation declaring a "Day of Restoration" on which Kansans should "collectively repent of distancing ourselves from God," and staged a massive prayer rally in a public park near the governor's mansion, telling the crowd, "I stand before you today, a leader of Kansas, and a sinful man, remorseful . . . Forgive me God, and forgive us."
This can obfuscate the fact that Brownback has been equally zealous when it comes to the sort of free-market extremism pushed by monied and business interests – Brownback grew up on a farm, but married into one of the wealthiest families in Kansas – and represented most baldly by his radical, deeply regressive tax scheme. In many ways, the dust-ups over abortion and AIDS are distracting sideshows; though Brownback is certainly a true believer, a certain amount of distraction might even be the intent. What's really important to the people running the show in Kansas – wealthy patrons like the Koch brothers – is the tax bill. Last year, Brownback hired widely discredited economist Arthur Laffer, who has been peddling supply-side theories since his work in the Reagan Administration, as a consultant on tax policy and drew up a budget that Republicans and Democrats alike considered precipitously austere. When it came to the size and swiftness of the tax cuts, the budget was also clearly financially unsustainable, a near-instantaneous deficit-bomb. The moderate Republicans who still controlled the Senate balked – until Brownback promised that if they just passed the bill, its problems would be fixed in the House. The Senators believed him, and allowed the bill to move to the House. Paul Davis, the leader of the House Democrats, remembers assuming there was no way his House Republican colleagues wouldn't fix the bill, "Just because the fiscal note was so massive, and it was so irresponsible."
Recalls Virgil Peck gleefully, "They passed something they didn't think we'd pass. Basically, it was, 'You won't shoot the hostage.' 'Oh? Watch.' And we did."
Now that the bill is law, though, experts are predicting a $267 million deficit by the end of 2013 – down from a $500 million surplus. To mitigate the damage, Brownback was forced to ask conservatives to vote for a tax hike, making a temporary sales tax increase permanent. On the eve of the Senate vote, it was unclear if the governor had a full-scale revolt on his hands. Republicans were summoned to a secret, off-site strategy session held in a conference room in an office building in downtown Topeka. Brownback, looking peevish, showed up to rally the troops, despite the fact that it was his daughter's birthday. "I know there's a lot of history here," he pleaded awkwardly, as the Senators feasted on barbecue from a buffet. "The sales tax, and the tax package last year, all have histories and legacies, and a lot of emotion goes into that. I'm asking you to look at the situation now, and what's in the best interest for us, as a state, on a go-forward basis."
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal had floated a similar "glide to zero" tax plan, but he recently threw in the towel after his approval rating began gliding in a similar direction, with voters reacting angrily to the deep cuts in services required to make the tax breaks feasible. Brownback might face similar problems – at the state level, Republicans have to balance their budgets, so they can't just offer massive tax breaks and allow the deficit to balloon like their hero, Ronald Reagan. But for the moment, he's hanging firm. Many, in fact, remain convinced that all of these experiments are being conducted with an eye toward 2016. "I very much believe that he wants to run for president," posits Davis, the House Democratic leader, who is said to be mulling his own run for governor. "I think he is attempting to build a resume that will give him the ability to compete in a Republican primary. And I look at a lot of these initiatives and I think they're more targeted towards appealing to Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina than they are to the betterment of this state."
Brownback's ideas aren't the only ones being studied carefully by national audiences. His Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, garnered national attention last year as the creator of "self-deportation," the immigration policy adopted by Mitt Romney, in which laws impacting undocumented workers would be enforced so punishingly that the workers would choose to return to their home countries. "Self-deportation" wound up on a long list of punchlines generated by the Republican primary circus – Kobach says he now prefers "attrition through enforcement" – but the Secretary of State remains a potent figure, handsome, articulate and very smart: Harvard undergrad, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School, a stint in the Bush Justice Department under John Ashcroft.
In other words, the guy doesn't seem crazy. He's actually quite charismatic, even likable if you ignore some of his policy arguments. And yet when we met, he scoffed at the way the Republican establishment has been looking to soften the party stance on immigration, calling that approach "simplistic and ahistorical." Part of this has to do with his own bottom line, of course: He's been drumming up a healthy side business hiring himself out to states like Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri as a consultant and helping them to craft their own self-deportation laws.
But like many Republicans on the far right, Kobach also sincerely believes the GOP's problems have more to do with image than substance. "You know," he says, "the instinct of the talking head culture in media, the TV people who are pontificating about what the Republicans should or should not do, is always to say, 'Well, it was an issues-driven thing.' Because they live in the world of issues! To them, the whole world is framed that way. But in fact, every four years, the size of the American electorate almost doubles. Think about that. And the people who vote only once every four years, they're likely to be much more driven by personalities, and by community efforts to mobilize them and say, 'Hey, we really need you to get out and vote.' Voters probably just saw Barack Obama as a more likable character than Mitt Romney."
Jean Schodorf feels differently. After leaving office, in fact, she did something she'd never thought she'd do: She left the Republican party. "It was a very hard decision, harder than I ever thought it would be," she says. "But I thought it was hypocritical, when they no longer stood for any of the issues I believed in." Schodorf is fairly certain she'll return to politics at some point, though she's not sure in what capacity. "We've got to get through these next two legislative sessions," she says drily, "and hope there's still something intact."
As for Brownback, well, his State of the State address in January seemed pitched not only to voters at home, but to a potentially broader audience. "When our country seems adrift, Kansas leads," he said. "In an era when many believe that America has lost its way, Kansas knows its way."
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