The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster

Extremist Republicans turned their government into a lab experiment of tax cuts and privatization. And now they may be losing control of one of the reddest states in the nation

Credit: Victor Juhasz

The Republican party headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, shares space in a strip mall with Best Friends Pet Clinic, a cowboy-boot repair shop and a Chinese restaurant called the Magic Wok. Inside, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, a modest gathering of party faithful mill about, I'M A BROWNBACKER stickers affixed to their blouses and lapels.

It's a terrible slogan. Four years ago, when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback first took office, you might've wondered if these people, on some subliminal level, actually wanted to be humiliated by a filthy-minded liberal activist looking to add a new "santorum" to Urban Dictionary. As a senator and a failed presidential candidate, Brownback was already one of the nation's most prominent social conservatives, "God's Senator," in the words of a 2006 Rolling Stone profile. But Brownback turned out to be even more radical when it came to economic policy. In 2012, he enacted the largest package of tax cuts in Kansas history, essentially transforming his state into a lab experiment for extreme free-market ideology. The results (disastrous) have reduced the governor to making appearances at grim strip malls like this one in a desperate attempt to salvage his re-election bid.

The last time I came to Kansas, in March 2013, Brownback could often be found wandering the halls of the state Capitol, sporting one of his signature sweater vests, smiling and nodding at passing strangers or offering impromptu lectures to schoolchildren paused in front of the oil painting of John Brown, the fearsome Kansas abolitionist, that hangs outside his office. Here in Wichita, though, he looks exhausted. When he takes the stage, he squints out at the audience through puffy eyes. His Texas counterpart, Gov. Rick Perry, stands behind him, having been summoned north to help bail out Brownback's flailing campaign.

Brownback gently teases Perry about how "now we have a small-business climate in Kansas that is better than Texas." Perry flips up his palms and silently makes his oops! face. 

Then the Texan steps to the podium and delivers a version of a speech I saw him give earlier this year in Kentucky, where he had been mobilized on a similar mission for Mitch McConnell. After boasting about all the jobs his policies have drawn to his state, Perry praises Brownback for placing Kansas on a similar "upward trajectory," insisting to the Wichita Republicans that for the past three years, his own team of poachers no longer even bothers trying to lure companies from Kansas – Brownback's radical economic reforms had simply made Kansas too attractive to business. "You go fish," Perry drawls, "where the fish are." 

There are a couple of problems with Perry's speech. First of all, he happens to be delivering it in Wichita, where, this summer, Boeing, for decades the largest private employer in the state of Kansas, shuttered its entire operation, shifting those jobs to cities like Seattle, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, Texas (oops).

The larger problem, of course, is that Perry wouldn't even have to be here in Kansas if Brownback's economic plan had not already proved catastrophic. Back in 2011, Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era godfather of supply-side economics, brought to Wichita by Brownback as a paid consultant, sounded like an exiled Marxist theoretician who'd lived to see a junta leader finally turn his words into deeds. "Brownback and his whole group there, it's an amazing thing they're doing," Laffer gushed to The Washington Post that December. "It's a revolution in a cornfield." Veteran Kansas political reporter John Gramlich, a more impartial observer, described Brownback as being in pursuit of "what may be the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation," not only cutting taxes but also slashing spending on education, social services and the arts, and, later, privatizing the entire state Medicaid system. Brownback himself went around the country telling anyone who'd listen that Kansas could be seen as a sort of test case, in which unfettered libertarian economic policy could be held up and compared right alongside the socialistic overreach of the Obama administration, and may the best theory of government win. "We'll see how it works," he bragged on Morning Joe in 2012. "We'll have a real live experiment."

That word, "experiment," has come to haunt Brownback as the data rolls in. The governor promised his "pro-growth tax policy" would act "like a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy," but, instead, state revenues plummeted by nearly $700 million in a single fiscal year, both Moody's and Standard & Poor's downgraded the state's credit rating, and job growth sagged behind all four of Kansas' neighbors. Brownback wound up nixing a planned sales-tax cut to make up for some of the shortfall, but not before he'd enacted what his opponents call the largest cuts in education spending in the history of Kansas.

Brownback hardly stands alone among the class of Republican governors who managed to get themselves elected four years ago as part of the anti-Obama Tea Party wave by peddling musty supply-side fallacies. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich – whose press releases claim he's wrought an "Ohio Miracle" – has presided over a shrinking economy, this past July being the 21st consecutive month in which the state's job growth has lagged behind the national average. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, whose union-busting inadvertently helped kick off the Occupy movement, cut taxes by roughly $2 billion – yet his promise to create 250,000 new private-sector jobs during his first term has fallen about 150,000 jobs short, and forecasters expect the state to face a $1.8 billion budgetary shortfall by mid-2017. A recent analysis by the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, laid out how the tax policies of Gov. Rick Snyder, a wealthy entrepreneur who campaigned in Michigan as a nerdy technocrat, have resulted in businesses paying less ($1.7 billion less per year, to be exact), individuals paying more ($900 million per year) and – here's the kicker – job growth slowing every year since Snyder's cuts have been enacted.

Snyder and Walker remain in dead heats with their Democratic opponents, with Kasich holding a comfortable lead over his own. Of all these geniuses, though, Brownback exists in a class of his own, thanks both to the vainglorious scale of his project and the inescapable reality of its flop. And what must have longtime Brownback patrons like the Koch brothers most freaked out is how starkly his failure highlights the shortcomings of their own ideology.

Brownback's policies have been so unpopular, in fact, that a group of more than 100 moderate Republicans, nearly all of them former or current state officeholders, have publicly backed his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Paul Davis, who, until the race's recent tightening, had been leading consistently in polls. Calling themselves Republicans for Kansas Values, the moderates released a manifesto of sorts, which reads in part, "We are Republicans in the historical and traditional sense of the word. Yet in today's political climate in Kansas, traditional Republican values have been corrupted by extremists, claiming to be agents of change. It is a faction which hides behind the respected Republican brand in an effort to defund and dismantle our state's infrastructure. . . . The policies [they] espouse are radical departures. . . . They jeopardize the economy and endanger our children's future with reckless abandon. . . . We reject their extremist agenda." 

Or as one of the founders of the group, a lifelong Republican with the improbable name of Wint Winter Jr. – old Lawrence money, former state senator, runs the family bank – told me, "From my perspective? When I look back at my time in the Legislature and then at the present day, I think, ‘We're not in Kansas anymore.' "

Meanwhile, as Brownback struggles to survive, the race for a Senate seat Kansas Republicans have held for decades unexpectedly came into play. Since 1996, it has  belonged to an unremarkable 78-year-old named Pat Roberts, who, after fending off a Tea Party primary challenger over the summer, hoped he'd coast to re-election. But by September, to the horror of the national GOP establishment, polls began showing Roberts trailing one of his opponents in the general election, a multimillionaire investor named Greg Orman who made his money by creating an energy-efficient lighting company (though he's also close friends with, and a business partner of, disgraced insider trader Rajat Gupta, who is currently serving a two-year federal prison term). Orman, running as an independent, has vowed to caucus with whichever party holds the majority, a prospect that's sent Republicans into full-panic mode. Though different factors have played into the troubles of Brownback and Roberts this election cycle, it's hard to imagine the stink coming off the governor's budget not tainting the Republican brand as a whole.   

Roberts certainly hasn't been helping his own case. In February, The New York Times revealed that the senator, who began serving in Congress in 1981, had no home in Kansas. His voting address in Dodge City turned out to be a friend's house where, Roberts joked to the newspaper, "I have full access to the recliner."

"How much time do you think Bob Dole spent in Russell, Kansas, for crying out loud?" a Kansas political insider who wishes to remain anonymous asked me. "Roberts' campaign handled it terribly, though, and people got pissed. And Roberts looks like an old guy on the trail. He's tired. This Orman guy seems to be a slightly sleazy businessman. But he's rich. And Roberts is scared shitless."

Brownback grew up on a pig farm in a tiny town in eastern Kansas. He attended Kansas State University on scholarship, earned a law degree, and in 1986, at age 30, got himself appointed secretary of agriculture. He ran for Congress eight years later as "the moderate candidate," Paul Davis, his gubernatorial opponent, told me. "He was pro-choice back then. Then I think he got into office and saw where the winds were blowing. And immediately, he started heading right." Winter, who worked with Brownback in the late 1980s, when Winter was a state senator and Brownback was agriculture secretary, agrees: "The Sam Brownback governing today is absolutely not the Sam Brownback I first knew."

In 1996, after Brownback won the Senate seat vacated by Dole, he quickly turned his position on the Judiciary Committee into "a platform for a high-profile war against gay marriage, porn and abortion," wrote Jeff Sharlet in the 2006 Rolling Stone profile. But while his willingness to deny evolution and hold up drawings by seven-year-olds of embryos during debates about stem-cell research tended to attract the most attention from reporters, it also proved a handy distraction.

From the beginning, Brownback, who married into one of the most prominent families in Kansas, had received support not just from "values voters" but also from the moneyed, quasi-libertarian side of the conservative movement – in particular, Wichita-based Koch Industries. A Koch-linked firm called Triad Management Services pumped $400,000 into his campaign for senator, helping him defeat former Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm, a pro-choice moderate backed by the Kansas GOP establishment. Since then, no one has donated more to Brownback than the Koch brothers, and Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity provided vociferous endorsements of his tax plan.

Once Brownback was elected governor in 2010, the biggest obstacle to his fiscal agenda turned out, surprisingly, to be a group of senators from his own party,  who recoiled from the most extreme of Brownback's proposals. The tax plan he had worked up eliminated most state income taxes on nearly 200,000 businesses and sharply reduced taxes on the wealthy. 

Dick Kelsey, one of the Republican senators who opposed the bill, is a former evangelical pastor who has been a movement conservative since the late 1970s, when he worked with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority – in other words, hardly anyone's definition of a moderate. "But I could just see that the tax bill took money from very poor people and benefited me, personally, too significantly," Kelsey told me last year. "And I'm not poor."

In the end, though, Brownback was able to persuade the Republican senators to allow the bill to move to the House, promising a compromise would be negotiated. But when the House, one of the most conservative in the United States, simply voted the bill into law, unchanged, Brownback signed it – despite the dire warnings of analysts who predicted Kansas would be running a deficit of $2.5 billion within six years. As Rep. Virgil Peck, a Republican from Tyro, gloated to me, "They passed something they didn't think we'd pass. Basically, it was, ‘You won't shoot the hostage.' ‘Oh? Watch.' And we did."

Then, with Kansas political observers still reeling from the enormity (and sheer insanity) of the power play, Brownback declared open war on the senators who had crossed him. He and his allies recruited a detachment of right-wing challengers for the 2012 primary and lavished them with funding: Then-Senate President Steve Morris estimated outside spending from groups like Americans for Prosperity at somewhere between $3 million and $8 million, massive numbers for state elections in a place like Kansas. (According to The Wichita Eagle, political-action committee spending in the final 10 days before the 2010 Kansas primary totaled $14,604; for the same period in 2012, that number soared to $797,465.)

Sen. Jean Schodorf, a 64-year-old Ph.D. whose grandmother came to Kansas in a covered wagon in 1883 – Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived on the Schodorf family farm – was defeated by a 27-year-old who'd served for a single year on the Wichita City Council and still lived in his father's parsonage. Kelsey, who dropped about $35,000 on his campaign, also found himself ousted after being significantly outspent. "It was just massive sums," he told me. "I became their number-one target, because I was still a conservative – they couldn't put the moderate tag on me."

Many observers believe Brownback had been hoping to set himself up for a presidential campaign in 2016. He'd run once before but wound up dropping out before the 2008 Iowa caucus after social conservatives flocked to Mike Huckabee. Perhaps being outflanked as God's candidate led to a bit of soul-searching. Or perhaps he just felt the winds shifting: Button-pushing "values" issues (like gay marriage) were losing their sway, particularly with younger voters, at a time when  the recession had forefronted economic issues in stark ways for millions of Americans who had yet to feel the effects of any reputed recovery.

Being governor in the midst of a national economic crisis, then, handed Brownback the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself. "My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we've got a different way, and it works,' " he told The Wall Street Journal last year. "We've got a series of blue states raising taxes and a series of red states cutting taxes. Now let's watch and see what happens."

If Brownback ends up losing in November, one of the things keeping him up at night might be his decision to purge the Senate. In interviews this year, Brownback, with no one to point the finger at, has been reduced to begging for more time, and to switching up his medical metaphors. His tax plan, it turns out, is no longer a Pulp Fiction-style adrenaline shot to the heart. "It's like going through surgery," he told a reporter in June. "It takes a while to heal and get growing afterwards." 

Brownback's education cuts have proved particularly toxic to his popularity. An August poll by Survey-USA had voters who listed education as their top priority favoring Brownback's opponent by 43 percentage points. Parent-enraging anecdotes abounded in schools across the state: tales of swelling classroom sizes, teachers forced to fill in for laid-off janitors and nurses, libraries unable to buy new books. One group of parents took the extraordinary step of suing the government, a lawsuit Brownback appealed all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court after a lower court described his actions as "destructive of our children's future." In March, the Supreme Court ruled the cuts unconstitutional. The case has since returned to district court, which will determine what the proper level of funding should be. 

As Brownback's popularity cratered, nobody was paying much attention to Roberts' Senate race, certainly not as a possible seat for Democrats to pick up. When a Tea Party challenger, a radiologist named Milton Wolf, emerged, the race got lumped into a broader "Tea Party versus Establishment" story line. But Wolf turned out to have made a series of prior comments too impolitic for the general voting public – in Wolf's case, on his personal Facebook page, where reporter Tim Carpenter of The Topeka Capitol-Journal discovered he had uploaded X-rays of deceased gunshot victims along with glib commentary. (An X-ray of one victim whose skull had been blown completely apart, for example, was described by Wolf as "one of my all-time favorites." He also said it reminded him of a scene from Terminator 2, adding, "What kind of gun blows somebody's head completely off? I've got to get one of those.")

Wolf lost the primary – by only seven points, it's worth noting! – but not before hammering Roberts for his recliner crack and more generally for rarely spending any time in Kansas. Still, for a moment, Roberts' primary victory became the story, part of the larger narrative of how GOP establishment figures like McConnell had managed to fend off their primary challengers (Eric Cantor being the notable exception), which, of course, tended to ignore how much McConnell, Roberts and their fellow "victors" had been willing to cravenly reinvent themselves to appeal to the wing-nut fringe dominating Republican primaries. 

Orman, the millionaire independent candidate, started blanketing the airwaves with television ads in July, but few paid his candidacy much notice. Then polls began showing him steadily gaining on Roberts; in head-to-head contests excluding Chad Taylor, the Democrat on the ballot, he was actually the front-runner.

By early September, Taylor had dropped out of the race, and until recently Orman had been steadily leading in polls. And overnight, control of the U.S. Senate suddenly hinged, in part, on the fate of an unloved Beltway mediocrity who could barely be bothered to leave his Virginia home in the middle of a re-election campaign. As John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked on both of John McCain's presidential campaigns, told The Washington Post, "He's basically furniture in the Senate. You could give the average Kansan 24 hours to come up with something Pat Roberts has done [and] even the crickets would be standing there befuddled."

McConnell, his lifelong dream of becoming Senate majority leader endangered, dressed down Roberts, who fired his campaign manager and imported a team of hardass D.C. fixers led by Chris LaCivita, the ex-Marine notorious for his work on the Swift-boat ads. Though Orman has positioned himself as a centrist – he says he voted for Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012 – Roberts' new strategy hinges on linking him to the president and Harry Reid. National Republicans like McCain, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have also dutifully made the trek to Kansas to stump for the old man. 

One morning in Independence, a tiny town near the Oklahoma border, Sarah Palin appears with Roberts at a local museum for a pancake breakfast. It seems like an awkward choice of locations to launch a partisan attack on an independent challenger, but Palin, sporting a purple Wildcats sweatshirt, plunges forward, attacking Orman as a "wishy-washy" candidate unwilling to "pick sides" and giving Roberts what must be one of the greatest endorsements in Kansas political history when she tells the crowd a vote for the senator is a vote "for unity's efforts, for the reason of unity, knowing that united we'll stand." 

Indeed. After the speeches, a long line forms at the pancake griddle as Palin and Roberts don red aprons to serve up breakfast. Only Palin doesn't end up doing any serving, because everyone in line wants to either have her sign something or pose for a cellphone picture. Roberts, meanwhile, sporting a checked shirt and looking every bit his age, is almost completely ignored by his constituents. It's a depressing spectacle. As the line starts to back up, Roberts is left holding a pair of sausage tongs and a styrofoam plate of pancakes. His hands shake. Occasionally, a star-struck Palin fan forgets about the food altogether and starts to walk away, prompting Roberts to thrust out the plate and call after them.

Although Democrats still have no chance at taking back the Kansas Legislature, Brownback's follies seem to be hurting other top-ticket Republicans. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a handsome lawyer with a fancy education (Harvard, Oxford, Yale) and national political ambitions – as an adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, he became infamous for coming up with the notion of "self-deportation" – has seen a seven-point lead over his Democratic opponent disappear since the summer. That opponent, incidentally, happens to be Jean Schodorf, the primaried Republican moderate, who came away from her dealings with Brownback so soured she switched parties.

"It was very hard for me to leave the GOP," Schodorf says. "But I saw things in Kansas becoming more like the national party – a party of intolerance and disrespect for people with slightly different ways of thinking. In the Senate, I always worked with Democrats. When Brownback got into office, the first thing he said in our caucus was, ‘I'm going to pass a budget, and I don't want any Democrat votes.' He wants all of his guns pointed in the same direction, and he made it very clear what would happen if you disagreed with him. He was willing to bankrupt the state to get his way."

That's one thing I always wondered about: Is it possible a guy as smart as Brownback really believed his own budgetary hoodoo? As Tom Holland, one of the top Democrats in the Kansas Senate, points out, "When the governor talks about how we need to be more like Texas or Florida" – meaning, a "pro-business" state with no income tax – "well, what is Florida? Basically, you have, like, 700 miles of sandy beaches and a $70 billion annual tourism economy. That's why they don't have an income tax. In Texas, oil and gas generate a huge amount of revenue, they're also huge in tourism, and Houston is one of the largest export ports we have in North America. And so this talk about ‘we need to be more like Texas': We're not going to be like Texas in a million years!"

Agriculture and aerospace remain staples of the Kansas economy; Brownback had also been a strong supporter of wind energy, a $7 billion industry tailor-made for the flat, blustery plains of the state, but has since backed away in the face of lobbying pressure from Koch Industries. His tax gambit, however, really does make very little sense. Which is why I found a theory floated by Winter so intriguing. Winter acknowledges that Brownback might have simply been "trying to go for broke: ‘I'm going to experiment, and the beneficiary will be me being president.' " But he thinks there might be another explanation for the recklessness of Brownback's budget: "This could be exactly what he wanted – to starve the beast. Maybe when he first said, ‘This is going to be an economic miracle,' he knew it wasn't true. And what he really wanted all along was to slash public education, shrink the size of government. And now he's getting exactly that."

There's a perverse logic to Winter's what-if. When curtailing government at all costs begins to feel like an existential mission, attacking the problem with a deficit bomb is probably not out of the question. Had the impact of Brownback's budget not been quite so immediate and precipitous – which he likely failed to anticipate – he could have easily glided to a second term, foisting some of the blame for sluggish growth onto Obama.

That's what has happened in Congress, where Tea Partiers have been able to take the most extreme positions with very few consequences, pleasing constituents in their gerrymandered districts without leaving fingerprints at the crime scenes. The mulish obstructionism of the congressional Republicans has arguably done far more damage to the lives of average Americans than Brownback's folly has wreaked on Kansans, by forcing austerity rather than stimulus during a recession, by cutting science and education funding, by allowing our infrastructure to rot – we could go on – and yet, the complexity of macroeconomics and the infuriating, unfunny slapstick of our divided and broken government conspire to hand the primary culprits plenty of cover, as long as they don't do anything impossible to ignore, like shut down the government.

Before leaving Kansas, just to give myself a taste of the old ways, I swing by a town-hall-style event featuring Bob Dole. On various trips to Kansas this year, he's been visiting every county as part of what's being billed as a thank-you tour, though it's certainly also a kind of farewell. Dole turned 91 in July, and these days he needs help walking. At the event I attend, in a converted train depot in a western Kansas town called, no joke, Liberal, a young aide marches him to a chair in the center of the room, basically holding him up. When Dole was a senator, he always clutched a pen in his right hand, disabled by a wound suffered during World War II. Today there's no pen, though, and his right hand is just balled up into a fist, which despite Dole's frailty still makes it seem like he's ready to punch a hippie, should the need arise.

I begin chatting with the guy standing next to me. His name is Al Shank, and he's come to the event to pay his respects and also to show the former senator a photograph featuring a young Dole and Shank's father. It turns out Shank is a former chair of the Seward County Republican Party, and also one of the signatories of the Republicans for Kansas Values letter renouncing Brownback. "To me, it was a Kansas issue, not a Republican or Democrat issue: I just think Brownback is not right for this state," Shank says. He owns a small insurance business and expects to see one of his tax bills drop from $800 to $100 this year. "How does the state make up that revenue?" Shank asks. "Trust me, I'm a Republican. But I'm not against paying well-thought-out taxes! Last year, I only paid about $6,000. Even if they forgive all of that, how many jobs can I create?" Shank shakes his head. "Dole knew the art of compromise. Today we don't have it. It's sad."

Dole dutifully talks up Roberts. His voice has slowed, but he remains sharp, almost seeming to grow younger as he gets into the minutiae of the midterm Senate races, who's up, who's down. He says the most important piece of legislation he helped pass in Washington was the 1983 deal to save Social Security, which required Ronald Reagan and congressional Democrats to work together. He tells a story about the Gipper: "He told me one day, ‘Now, Bob, I'm going to send this legislation to Congress, and I want to get a hundred percent of it.' And then he said, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Well, if you can't get me a hundred, get me 70, and I'll get the rest next year.' He realized sometimes you've got to give a little to get a little." During the question-and-answer period, when someone asks Dole if he thinks Palin might run for president, Dole simply growls, "I hope not."

Outside, after the event, attendees rushed to their cars. There'd been a storm warning, and the sky was looking ominous. A statue of Dorothy stood right in front of the town hall, as if awaiting the next tornado. It didn't come that night, though our cars were pelted with giant hailstones and I ended up in the middle of one of the gnarliest electrical storms I've ever driven through, the lightning so
severe at one point that my windshield wipers began to strobe. Scariest of all was the way in which you could watch the dark clouds massing on the distant horizon, slowly rolling in our direction.