Sam Brownback, governor of Kansas, heads for the exit

GOVERNORS of Kansas tend to love their job and rarely leave it early. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, dithered before agreeing to leave the governor’s mansion after Barack Obama asked her to lead the introduction of the Affordable Care Act as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The current Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is different. He appeared not to hesitate before agreeing to take the relatively low-profile job of ambassador for international religious freedom in Washington, DC, a good 16 months before the end of his term. Perhaps Mr Brownback is as keen to leave Kansas as many Kansans are to see him go.

Mr Brownback once had high ambitions. At the age of 30 he was Kansas’s secretary of agriculture, a congressman eight years later, a senator by age the age of 40 and a (short-lived) candidate for the presidential election in 2008 aged 50. When he was elected governor of his home state in 2010, Mr Brownback had a grand vision: the transformation of Kansas into a conservative beacon. “Our place, Kansas, will not be timid in doing what is right, even if much of the nation takes another way,” he said in his state-of-the-state address in January 2013 following Mr Obama’s re-election. Kansas will show “the difficult path for America to go in these troubled times”, he vowed.

The policies Mr Brownback implemented in 2012 and 2013 were cheered by social conservatives and Laffer-curve acolytes. He cut business and income taxes in what he called a “real live experiment” and privatised Medicaid. He signed several laws making it harder to have an abortion and others that made it easier to get hold of guns. If things went well he could surely have another crack at the presidency. 

But things did not go well. Mr Brownback’s fiscal policies blew a hole in Kansas’s budget and led to cuts in school and infrastructure funding. The state’s debt rating was downgraded several times. Kansas was one of only five states to lose private-sector jobs from the start of this year to June, compared with a national growth rate of 1.7% for the same period, according to the Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University. “The governor put all his eggs in one basket and it blew up in his face,” says Patrick Miller at the University of Kansas. 

In June, Republicans joined Democrats to override the governor’s veto of tax increases aimed at undoing much of Brownback-onomics. Susan Wagle, the Republican president of the Kansas senate, said in June that she hoped the Senate would work swiftly to approve Mr Brownback in his new job “so that we can get Kansas back on track with new leadership”. As soon as Mr Brownback departs for Washington, DC, Jeff Colyer, the state’s lieutenant governor, will take over as governor—and a political race will begin. 

Four Republicans have already thrown their hats into the ring. They are Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who is a hardliner on immigration; Wink Hartman, an oil tycoon from Wichita; Jim Barnett, a former state senator, who is also a doctor; and Ed O’Malley, a former state representative.

Mr Colyer has not said whether he will run. If he does, he will struggle to distinguish himself from Mr Brownback. The plastic surgeon is a loyal confidant of his boss and has never shown any sign of disagreeing with his radical course. His main achievement as policymaker is the design of KanCare, the state’s privatised Medicaid programme. Yet if Mr Colyer manages to follow the example of Eric Holcomb, who took over as Indiana’s governor when Mike Pence joined President Donald Trump’s ticket and successfully steered a more centrist course than his predecessor, he could have a shot at winning the Republican primary for the governorship. 

Democrats must hope that Mr Colyer or Mr Kobach, who is to the right even of Mr Brownback, wins the Republican primary rather than the moderate Mr Barnett or the even more centrist Mr O’Malley. Many Kansans seem tired of radicalism and keen to get back to the moderate conservatism of most of the governors that came before Mr Brownback. The gubernatorial race next year will show whether the last six years were an aberration in Kansas politics or a lasting shift to the right.

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