In the surprisingly competitive Kansas gubernatorial race, Democratic nominee Paul Davis has a not-so-secret weapon: Republicans.
While Gov. Sam Brownback's reforms have drawn devoted support from many conservatives, Davis has worked to pick up disaffected moderates and state lawmakers turned off by the incumbent's style.
“The outreach isn’t unique,” said one Kansas Democratic operative, discussing Davis’ efforts to woo Republicans. “But the response is.”
In July, Davis, the Democratic leader of the state House of Representatives, announced that more than 100 Republicans — including former speakers of the state House, former state legislators, and former Rep. Jan Meyers — were backing his gubernatorial bid. Their support is a key part of his message, touted at the very top of his campaign website.
Meanwhile, the word “Democrat” is nowhere to be seen.
Brownback raised the hackles of many Republican lawmakers with an unusually brusque style in the governor's mansion. In 2012, he backed the primary challengers of 11 Republican state senators who weren’t sufficiently on board with his tax- and budget-cutting agenda. Nine of the 11 lost their primaries, and with the new wave of supporters in the legislature, Brownback was able to realize much of his fiscally conservative agenda.
But that wasn’t without collateral damage. Sources said there’s a lot of bad blood from the governor’s political moves, and that made some members of his own party eager to get on board with his Democratic opponent.
Jean Schodorf is one of the Republican senators who lost to a Brownback-backed challenger. She was first elected to the state Senate in 2000, and said she noticed a palpable change when Brownback became governor in 2011.
“When the governor came to town, everything changed,” she said. “You could feel it in the air. You could tell that they were going to take over.”
She said that Brownback was straightforward about his fiscally conservative aims. At a meeting with legislators, per her description, he said he didn’t want Democrats to vote for his budget.
“I only want a Republican budget” — that’s what Schodorf said Brownback told the group. The implication: He would craft a budget unpalatable for Democrats.
And whether that's what he meant or not, that’s what he got. The state’s Democratic legislators steered clear of his budget proposal.
A few months later, Schodorf and other Republican legislators visited with the governor at his residence, Cedar Crest. At the meeting, he said he would be glad to help them in their re-election bids, but with a caveat:
“All of our guns have to be pointed in the same direction,” he said, per Schodorf.
“We looked at each other — ‘What does that mean?’ ” she said.
The governor didn’t campaign for those who opposed his agenda. But that didn’t keep moderate Republicans — Schodorf included — from teaming up with Senate Democrats to build a coalition to push back against the governor.
Tensions rose in the statehouse, and primary challengers materialized.
“I tried to block it all out because it was uncomfortable,” said Schodorf. “It was upsetting, it was un-Kansan.”
Schodorf lost her primary to Michael O’Donnell. On the day in January 20113 when the new class of legislators was sworn in, she changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Today, she’s running for secretary of state, facing Republican Kris Kobach. Recent polling indicates that contest is close.
But Brownback’s allies are unfazed.
“Davis' ‘outreach’ is limited to a band of disaffected Republicans who defected when voters embraced a more conservative agenda for the state over the past two election cycles,” emailed Mike O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and a vocal supporter of the governor. “It's an ‘any port in a storm’ approach.”
And one Republican operative who’s done a lot of work in Kansas said things are better for Brownback than recent polls might indicate. Davis’ biggest asset is that Kansans don’t really know him, he argued, and as Republicans define him, his support may flag.