ROLLING STONE POLITICS
Rogue State: How Far-Right Fanatics Hijacked Kansas
Gun nuts, anti-abortion zealots and free-market cultists are leading the state to the brink of disaster
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Mark Binelli
June 12, 2013 11:50 AM ET
For the past 12 years, the Kansas State Capitol has been under constant renovation. Most recently, its grand dome, which towers majestically over sleepy downtown Topeka, sprung leaks, forcing repair crews to cage the entire building with a blocky, ramshackle grid of scaffolding. From a distance, it looks like painful orthodontia, or perhaps a bad political metaphor.
Inside, though, one can’t help but be swept up by the bustling, civics-in-action buzz of the place. Groups of children on field trips are being led past murals of hearty Kansans surviving a blizzard, grazing cattle, leading kids into a one-room schoolhouse. Politicians and their staffers sit on benches nearby, conducting hushed confabs or chatting amiably with Capitol bureau reporters and red-badged lobbyists. None of this reeks of Machiavellian House of Cards amorality, perhaps because we’re surrounded by so many paintings of pioneers doing various things with wheat. In the gift shop, you can buy snowglobes containing tornados and Wizard of Oz characters.
And look, there’s the governor, Sam Brownback! The 56-year-old, a regular sight on Capitol tours, today happens to be wandering the corridor near his second-floor office. He’s holding a coffee mug and sporting one of his signature sweater vests – such pleasingly Capra-esque touches that one wonders if a wardrobe consultant was involved – and when his eyes alight upon an unfamiliar face, he beams and gives the visitor a pleasant nod.
Just a few years ago, Brownback seemed washed up. A devout Catholic who attends mass several times a week, he’d built a following among the Christian right as one of the most socially conservative U.S. senators of the Bush era, but his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 proved an embarrassing folly. Unable to raise money or make a dent in the polls after religious conservatives flocked to Mike Huckabee, Brownback wound up limping from the race before the first votes were even cast in the Iowa caucus.
But apparently, the notion of wielding executive branch power had become appealing. Two years later, he handily won the governorship, part of the class of Republicans elected in 2010 on a Tea Party-driven wave of anti-Obama sentiment.
Once in office, Brownback surprised critics and supporters alike with the fervor of his pursuit of power, pushing what reporter John Gramlich of Stateline described as perhaps “the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation”: gutting spending on social services and education, privatizing the state’s Medicaid system, undermining the teacher’s union, becoming the only state to entirely abolish funding for the arts, boasting that he would sign any anti-abortion bill that crossed his desk, and – most significantly – pushing through the largest package of tax cuts in Kansas history. His avowed goal is to eliminate the state income tax altogether, a move that many predict will torpedo the budget and engender even more draconian cuts in spending. “Other Republican-led states have experimented with many of the same changes,” Gramlich pointed out – the difference in Kansas being that Brownback “wants to make all of those changes simultaneously.”
Since Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat last November, much has been made of the supposed battle for the soul of the Republican party taking place at the national level, where pragmatic establishment types are attempting to win over minorities, women and young people by tamping down the most extreme elements of the Tea Party fringe and moderating stances on issues like gay marriage and immigration. The problem is, in places like Kansas (and Louisiana, and South Carolina, and North Dakota), that fringe has become the political mainstream. In fact, while strategists like Karl Rove urge moderation for the GOP, in Kansas, they’ve been taking the opposite tack. Last fall, Brownback and his allies – including the Koch brothers, the right-wing libertarian billionaires whose company Koch Industries is based in Wichita – staged a primary putsch, lavishing funds on hard-right candidates and effectively purging the state Senate of all but a handful of its remaining moderate Republicans. “The Senate was really the bulwark of moderation last term,” says Tom Holland, a Senate Democrat (there are only eight of them left) who ran against Brownback for governor. “With the moderate Republican leadership gone, that just got blown away.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since Thomas Frank wrote about the conservative takeover of his home state in What’s the Matter With Kansas? Back then, Kansas still had a Democratic governor in Kathleen Sebelius. But after last fall’s civil war, Kansas has emerged a more intense shade of red than even Frank imagined. The state legislature is the most conservative in the United States, and now there is absolutely nothing stopping the Brownback revolution – one which happens to be entirely at odds with any notion of the GOP adapting to the broader social and demographic changes in the country. If anything, these purists argue, Republicans lost in 2012 because the party wasn’t conservative enough.
No one can say that about Sam Brownback, who is rumored to be mulling his own presidential run in 2016 – and using Kansas as a sort of laboratory, in which ideas cooked up by Koch-funded libertarian think tanks can be released like viruses on live subjects. At a national level, the GOP remains stuck in a reactive position, pursuing executive branch “scandals” and blocking Obama’s policies with no real power to effect changes of their own, and so states like Kansas have become very important to the future of the party’s far-right wing. Consider it a test, a case study – proof, finally, that an unfettered hybrid of Randian free-market dogma and theocratic intolerance can create, in the bitter words of outgoing Senate President Steve Morris, one of the ousted moderates, an “ultraconservative utopia.” Of course, Morris ruefully added, “It depends on your definition of utopia.”
Back in April, Brownback was chosen to deliver the Republican response to the President’s weekly radio address. He invited listeners everywhere to “join us as we remake our country, not into a place that looks more and more like Europe. We don’t need to do that. We just need to become America again. And that is the rebirth we are doing.” In other words, the Koch brothers may have lost the big battle last fall, but in states like Kansas, they’re winning.
The legislative session in Kansas begins in January and typically only lasts for about 90 days, a holdover from a time when most of the citizen-legislators were farmers who could only make time for governing in the fallow winter months. Two floors up from Brownback’s office, spectators can watch the House and Senate proceedings from a gallery of stiff-backed pews. The chamber is the sort of grand, filigreed hall (fussy cornicework, pink marble columns, chandeliers fit for a castle) that makes you feel like you’re inside a giant wedding cake. The lawmakers work at curved desks that stretch back from the speaker’s platform like rows of teeth.
One afternoon in March, the Senate debated a bill that would prevent public employees from donating directly to union PACs from their paychecks. The wonkiness of the details helps disguise the fact that the bill directly targets public school teachers, part of a larger package of union-busting laws pushed by Brownback. (He’s also reclassified thousands of civil service jobs to eliminate union protection and set up public school “innovation zones” that would basically allow districts to ignore state laws surrounding curriculum, salaries and collective bargaining rights.) In order to finance his tax cuts, Brownback has cut education spending by the largest amount in state history. But in January, a state court ruled the cuts unconstitutional and ordered the government to restore $400 million of school spending. “It seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state’s diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further,” the court stated in its ruling. Brownback has responded on dual fronts: by appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court and by pushing through a bill that would “reform” the way in which state judges were appointed – allowing Brownback, rather than a panel, to appoint judges directly, giving the governor direct power over the one branch of Kansas government that had been out of his control.
As viewed from the Senate balcony, the distinguished body is a sea of older, predominantly white men in navy blazers, their shiny bald spots forming an archipelago of pink desert islands. Ty Masterson, a freshman senator from the Flint Hills, presides over today’s debate. Unlike many of his colleagues, Masterson has a sharp suit and a full head of hair, and he speaks in an odd, husky purr, making even bland statements like “Senator from Wyandotte has the floor” sound more like he’s getting ready to whisper, “Turn over on your stomach now.” A realtor with six children and an A+ rating from the NRA, Masterson was made budget committee chair upon his election – despite the fact that he’d filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after his home-building business went under, ultimately only paying about $3,000 of the $887,000 owed his creditors. “Who better to lead out of the forest than somebody who has seen a lot of the pitfalls?” he told the Wichita Eagle at the time. Today, while Democrat Anthony Hensley, a public school special education teacher for over 30 years, thunders about how the union bill is an effort to silence the loyal opposition, Masterson fiddles with his iPhone. It turns out he’s checking college basketball scores, which he periodically announces to the chamber.
In the end, the bill passes, 24-16. Meanwhile, over in the House, they’re debating guns. A bill allowing public schools and universities to arm teachers, principals and other faculty members has easily passed, along with another bill, likely unconstitutional, maintaining that federal gun laws do not apply to guns manufactured and sold within Kansas’ borders (citing a tenuous argument that the federal power to regulate firearms only applies to interstate commerce.)
Freshman Republican Jim Howell, a trim 46-year-old Air Force veteran who represents suburban Wichita, has now introduced a bill that would force nearly all public buildings in the state to allow people to carry concealed weapons inside – unless those buildings hired armed security guards and install metal detectors, which, of course, would be prohibitively expensive for most cash-strapped municipalities. Gun-free “safe zones,” Howell insists, should actually be rechristened “dangerous zones.”
Howell is soon joined by an ally, freshman Republican Allan Rothlisberg of Grandview Plaza, a retired 30-year Army veteran who is the approximate shape and shade of a Red Bartlett Pear. Rothlisberg goes even further than Howell, arguing that public buildings which banned guns should be held liable for any shootings. When one incredulous Democrat asks if Rothlisberg is familiar with a recent “slaughter of 10-year-olds in Connecticut,” Rothlisberg drawls, “I’ve been familiar with slaughters of people in gun-free zones for years.” Later, he adds that the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech had been “absolutely [the school’s] fault.”
Up next: a shockingly reasonable amendment from retired judge John Barker, another freshman Republican, who stands up to argue that it might be a good idea to ban concealed weapons from court proceedings – say, emotional child custody cases, in which allowing aggrieved parties to carry weapons could be a recipe for disaster. Taking care to stress his bona fides as a “lover of the second amendment” and an 18-year hunter’s safety instructor, Barker goes on, “I’ve been a judge for 25 years and am proud to say I never carried a gun on the bench. Didn’t think I wanted to do that.”
During the voice vote on Barker’s amendment – which, of course, goes down to defeat – the no’s sound like boos at the Apollo. Finally, Lawrence Democrat John Wilson stands up to offer his own cheeky amendment. If gun-free zones are so dangerous, he argues sarcastically, why not get rid of the metal detectors and guards at the entrances to this very building, which wind up costing Kansas taxpayers upwards of $200,000 annually, and just allow everyone to carry concealed weapons in the state capitol instead?
Howell says that sounds like a great idea to him. The amendment passes overwhelmingly, as does the bill itself.
Kansas has a long tradition of producing pragmatic, centrist Republicans, from President Dwight Eisenhower to senators like Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. In What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank notes that traditionally, the Kansas legislature was comprised of moderates, aside from “a small band of right-wing cranks who amused the citizenry by pulling an occasional filibuster on tax legislation.” He argues that the shift in focus came in 1991, during an “uprising that would propel those reptilian Republicans from a tiny splinter group into the state’s dominant political faction… wreck[ing] what remained of the state’s progressive legacy.”
That uprising centered around abortion. Operation Rescue, the fanatical anti-abortion group founded in 1986 by former used car salesman Randall Terry, first decided to target Wichita during its so-called “Summer of Mercy” in 1991 – focusing in particular on Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who provided late-term abortions. In 2002, Operation Rescue moved its national headquarters to Wichita in order to stalk Tiller even more closely; the doctor was eventually murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 2009, gunned down while working as an usher at his church.
Back in the summer of ‘91, thousands of anti-abortion activists descended upon the city, committing acts of civil disobedience, harassing women attempting to enter clinics and picketing residences of doctors. Protestors outside of Tiller’s clinic waved signs that read “Babies Killed Here” and “Tiller’s Slaughter House.” Operation Rescue’s tactical director bragged to The New York Times that “We know when Tiller’s using the bathroom.” Nearly 3,000 people were arrested; at one point, a quarter of the city’s police force was dedicated to handling the protests, and all of the city’s abortion clinics were closed for a week, until a federal court ordered them reopened.
The protest culminated with a massive rally at Wichita State University’s football stadium headlined by Pat Robertson and drawing a spillover crowd of 25,000. “This was where the Kansas conservative movement got an idea of its own strength . . . ” Frank wrote, “where it achieved critical mass.”
Thus mobilized, conservative Republicans swept into the state legislature in 1992 and never looked back. Four years later, moderate Republican governor Bill Graves appointed his own lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, to fill Bob Dole’s vacant Senate seat – but she was trounced in the primaries by the far more conservative Brownback, with the help of an eleventh-hour infusion of $400,000 from the Koch brothers.
When Brownback was elected governor in 2010, there was only one group of politicians standing in his way. Surprisingly, they were not Democrats – whose numbers in the Kansas legislature had dwindled so precipitously as to render them effectively impotent – but a small band of moderate Republicans, who balked at the most extreme elements of Brownback’s agenda and still had enough power in the Kansas Senate to gum up the works. And so when the 2012 Republican primary rolled around, Brownback and his supporters recruited an army of right-wing challengers and targeted the moderates with unprecedented alacrity. Not to mention cash: During the primary, outside spending from groups like Americans for Prosperity (a lobbying group founded by the Koch brothers), the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (run by former Koch employees), the Club for Growth and Kansans for Life totalled, according to varying estimates, somewhere between $3 million and $8 million.
One of the targeted moderates, Jean Schodorf, had served three terms as a state Senator. Her grandmother came to Kansas in a covered wagon as a homesteader in 1883; Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up on the land that would become the Schodorf family farm, and Schodorf and her brother still run a Little House On the Prairie museum. Her family has been Republican “since Lincoln created the party,” she says. But she wound up clashing with Brownback over abortion rights and his education policy; though she opposed a number of elements of Obamacare, she also voted against the notion of holding a statewide ballot referendum to repeal the law, considering the move a waste of taxpayer money since the health care law had already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A 62-year-old Ph.D. who works as a speech pathologist, Schodorf had never before faced a primary challenge – but in 2012, in the second most expensive state Senate race in Kansas history, she was defeated by 27-year-old Michael O’Donnell, who had served for a single year on the Wichita City Council, and who still lived with his parents. O’Donnell’s father, a Wichita pastor, was an anti-abortion protestor who was arrested during the Summer of Mercy while protesting outside of George Tiller’s abortion clinic. “Senator Schodorf’s a great lady,” O’Donnell told me. “She’s just in the wrong party.”
Dick Kelsey, another of the senators on Brownback’s enemies list, could not be questioned for his ideological purity. An evangelical preacher and a stalwart member of the conservative wing of the GOP, Kelsey had first entered politics in Indiana, where he helped recruit socially conservative candidates for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s. He eventually moved to Kansas to open a Christian treatment camp for drug- and alcohol-addicted youth. When local politicos urged him to run for a newly open state legislative seat, he initially demurred. “But God was good,” he says, “and I ran and won.”
Kelsey served two terms in the House before shifting to the Senate, and in both chambers, he maintained a reliably conservative voting record on both fiscal and social issues. Then Brownback came into office. Kelsey figures he probably voted with Brownback 98 percent of the time, but he publicly opposed the governor’s budget after he realized it would lower his own tax burden to zero. “The bill was designed, frankly, to take care of Koch Industries,” Kelsey says. “I could see that it took money from very poor people and benefitted me, personally, too significantly. And I’m not poor.”
Groups like Americans for Prosperity outspent Kelsey by $200,000, a huge number in Kansas state politics. (Kelsey spent about $35,000 on his entire campaign.) Thirteen days before the primary, one poll showed Kelsey with a 20-point lead. “But 17 negative mailers later . . .” he says, chuckling ruefully.
Kelsey was also defeated. Of the 22 moderate Senators targeted, only five survived. It was a wholesale rout, a bloodbath. After the primary, Brownback told reporters that voters made a “clear statement . . . I think what you had is, the market functioned on Tuesday.”
“I think Brownback is fascinated by how easy it is to change things as governor, as opposed to being one of 100 U.S. senators,” a Topeka insider with ties to both parties tells me. “The current Republican legislature watched the moderates get executed by the Brownback machine. They know, and are no doubt regularly reminded of, how Brownback destroyed the career of a solid conservative like Dick Kelsey. And they know he’s capable of killing any one of them.”
The anonymous, single-story building that once housed George Tiller’s abortion clinic sits on an undistinguished stretch of highway service drive in Wichita, just down the block from a used car lot. To get inside, patients entered a gated driveway covered with signs reading “Premises Monitored Electronic Surveillance” and “No Trespassing.” The clinic has been closed since Tiller’s murder in 2009. On the lobby door, a sticker of a gun with a slash through it remains, once posted to let visitors know they weren’t allowed to carry concealed weapons inside.
This spring, Julie Burkhart, a native Kansan who worked alongside Tiller as a spokesperson and legislative activist, decided to reopen his clinic. Since the murder, there have been no abortion providers in Wichita, which has a metropolitan area with a population of 650,000; in fact, the only three abortion providers left in the entire state of Kansas were in Kansas City, 200 miles away.
One afternoon, I met Burkhart at the clinic, still several weeks from opening. An extension cord ran out of the SIGN IN window into a cluttered lobby, where a pile of forceps and a vacuum suction machine sat out from an earlier training. Burkhart is 46, with flowing, abundant red hair and the sort of taste in rings and beaded necklaces that makes her look like a bit of a hippie, which belies a steely tough-mindedness. Tiller’s harassment, she tells me, had been steady since the Summer of Mercy. There had been an assassination attempt in 1993, and she recalls sitting in his office and noticing a bulletproof vest.
“We really didn’t talk about the personal danger a lot, because I felt like it was maybe challenging for him to dwell on it,” she says. “You know, he didn’t set out to do this work. But I think the more he was involved in caring for women, the more he became wedded to the idea, and the fact, that women need safe, legal health care. And then it became a matter of principle.”
Burkhart introduces me to one of the doctors she has hired, a woman who wishes to remain anonymous. She’s been working as an OB/GYN in a small town for the past 10 years, delivering an average of 20 babies a month, and had never performed an elective abortion before. But the rhetoric coming from the right during the last election – “the War on Women, those nasty comments people were making about rape,” she says – made her think more seriously about ways in which she could contribute to progressive causes, beyond simply knocking on doors and asking for money. When I ask if any of her friends and family tried to talk her out of taking the new job, she says, “All of them. Most of whom have had abortions. They all want to see this clinic reopen. They just want someone else to do it. My mother had an illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade. Kitchen-table thing. Both of my sisters, too. All were married at the time, practicing contraception. People take precautions, but sometimes precautions fail. The pill is 98 percent effective when used perfectly – if you’re a robot. But not everyone is perfect.”
The “antis,” as Burkhart calls the local anti-abortion crusaders have already begun casing the building, typically in pairs. They’ve also shown up at Burkhart’s home twice, forcing her to take out a restraining order on one local preacher. She shows me a flyer that’s been circulating with her photograph on it. ADOPT AN ABORTION-HOMICIDE PROMOTER, it reads, continuing:
As an employee of the late abortionist Tiller, Julie Burkhart is responsible for the mass murder of thousands of innocent children. Now she wants to do it again! Adoption is the loving option, not only for babies, but also for adults who have lost their way. Join us in adopting abortion promoter Julie Burkhart who is conspiring to take the lives of precious children in Wichita again.
Chillingly, the flyer goes on to exhort readers to “do a public outreach” at Burkhart’s home – listing her street address – and notes that, “Lastly, please remind her that, ‘God hates the hands that shed innocent blood.’”
Pockets of progressive resistance remain in Kansas, in bigger cities like Wichita and college towns like Lawrence. But despite the inspiring bravery of women like Burkhart, opposing forces back in Topeka seem to have insurmountably marshalled against them. Brownback already signed a bill in 2011 that banned abortions after 21 weeks (claiming fetuses could feel pain at that point). New bills required abortion providers to show patients detailed images of fetal development and explain the supposed “link” (deemed bogus by the National Cancer Institute) between abortion and breast cancer; got rid of an exemption allowing late-term abortions if the woman’s mental health was at risk; and even officially declared that life began at conception. The latter bill was supported by freshman Republican Shanti Gandhi, a retired Topeka physician – and yes, he’s the great-grandson of that Gandhi – who called the point “indisputable.”
The Brownback revolution has not proceeded without hitches. Maintaining control of an insurrectionary movement is notoriously tricky, as is separating out the true-believing foot soldiers from the cranks and nutjobs. The antics of improperly vetted Tea Party candidates have redounded negatively on the GOP on a national level – creating an awkward tension, since the establishment also very much needs, and fears, the useful idiots making the loudest noises from the most unsavory fringes – and the same dynamic is at play in Kansas, where the Brownbackers might be wishing they’d been more careful with their previous wishes.
In the current legislative session, the House and Senate voted to rescind a 25-year-old ban on quarantining people with AIDS, and Rep. Steve Brunk of Wichita introduced a bill that would require cities that put fluoride in their water to inform customers that fluoridation lowers the I.Q. of children. The latter claim, of course, is patently false, but somehow fluoride has become a source of paranoia out in the chemtrail/Alex Jones corner of the wackosphere. A group with anti-abortion ties called Wichitans Opposed to Fluoridation actually managed to pass a ballot initiative last fall that would remove fluoride from Wichita’s drinking water. (”I don’t trust the water, period,” one voter told the Wichita Eagle. Said another, “People should be more responsible and brush their teeth.”) Last year, the state legislature passed a bill preventing United Nations’ Agenda 21 from being implemented in the state. Agenda 21 is a benign, two-decades-old UN resolution that called for worldwide cooperation in fighting economic disparity and protecting the environment, but has since become a black helicopter/One World Government bugaboo for Republicans like Rep. Bill Otto of LeRoy, who argued during the floor debate that since JFK’s assassination had clearly been committed by more than one shooter, well then, why couldn’t the Agenda 21 conspiracies also be true?
Brownback has found it difficult to keep hardcore Republicans in line on issues like wind energy, which has become a $7 billion industry in Kansas – a flat and blustery state well-suited to wind farms – and which Brownback supports. Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita, a geophysicist who works for the oil and gas industry (and a climate change denier), pushed a bill that would roll back a law requiring the state to meet certain renewable energy standards. Hedke also wants to ban any public money from being spent on sustainable development.
Last year, Brownback was forced to personally dress down Rep. Virgil Peck, an insurance salesman from southeast Kansas who publicly “joked” about how sharpshooters in helicopters had been so effective in killing feral swine, they should be used to hunt illegal immigrants. A Kansas political insider who wishes to remain anonymous was telling me this story when I interrupted and said, “I can’t believe he’d say that within earshot of a reporter.” My source went silent, then continued, “He said it in a House appropriations committee meeting.”
After the story made national headlines, Peck grudgingly apologized under pressure from Brownback. Still, it hasn’t exactly quelled his willingness to embrace controversial positions. Earlier this session, Peck was the only House member to oppose an anti-bullying bill, which passed 119-1. He later told a reporter from the Topeka Capital-Journal that “bullying legislation has always been a top priority of the homosexual group. I’ve never been a fan.”
When I visited Peck in his office, he greeted me effusively, with an accent that sounds less Midwestern than Deep South. He represents the rural Ozarks region in the far southeastern corner of the state, where he grew up. Around the capitol, he’s known for his loud sartorial choices. Today, he’s sporting a pretty amazing looking shirt-jacket combination, the former electric blue, the latter sherbert green, along with a red, white and blue lapel pin shaped like a cross. Peck tells me he was just writing an email, though there’s no computer on his desk, only a legal pad on which he’s been writing longhand. Sunlight pours through the big window behind him. For some reason, there’s also an overhead light on, so he almost disappears in the hazy brightness as I face him, his thick brown beard floating like the grin of a Cheshire Cat.
“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.”