IOLA, Kan. – The several dozen citizens gathered at a street corner just off the main square of this southeastern Kansas town of 5,600 were polite and friendly in the Midwestern way. They did not look in the least like a band of counterrevolutionaries intent on reversing the direction of the government in Topeka.
Yet the results of the tea party rebellion four years ago have led these civic-minded, middle-of-the-road Kansans to a quiet but fierce determination to take their state back from those who once talked incessantly about taking their country back.
What brought them together earlier this week was a visit from Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor. Davis has generally been running ahead of Republican incumbent Sam Brownback in what is one of the country’s most consequential showdowns on next Tuesday’s ballot.
Brownback set things up this way by launching what he called, proudly and unapologetically, a “real, live experiment” that he hoped would provide a model of red-state governance. He pushed steep income and business tax cuts through the Legislature, insisting that his program would spur unprecedented economic growth. The results so far have been less than inspiring: large budget deficits, credit downgrades, and substantial cuts in education spending, some of which were reversed only because of a court order. Only rarely does an election pose such a clear philosophical and policy choice.
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Brownback often cited low-tax Texas as his model, prompting a ready reply from Davis. “They don’t want to be like Texas,” he said in an interview at his storefront headquarters here. “They just want to be Kansas.”
What it means to be Kansas is precisely what’s at stake, and it’s why Davis’ campaign uses #RestoreKansas – a traditionalist’s slogan when you think about it – as its Twitter battle cry. The choice Davis is offering is not between liberalism and conservatism but between two kinds of conservatism – the deeply anti-government tea party kind, and an older variety that values prudence and fiscal restraint but also expects government to provide, as Davis put it, “the basic services that are essential to the state’s vitality.”
In his stump speech, Davis emphasizes public education, transportation, Brownback’s rejection of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and a widely unpopular privatization of Kansas’ Medicaid program.
What’s striking is how many Republicans have joined Davis’ effort, including a large group of Republican politicians, some of whom Brownback purged in bitter primaries. Achieving ideological purity in the GOP turns out to have high costs, and Davis spoke of “the many functions we’ve had where we had more Republicans than Democrats.
“I like those,” he adds.
Indeed he does. In a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost 2-1, moderately conservative Republicans are the swing voters.
Some are shocked that Kansas is one of this year’s battlegrounds, not only in the governor’s race but also in the pivotal U.S. Senate contest between independent Greg Orman and incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. But one person who is not surprised is James Roberts (no relation to the senator), Davis’ 29-year-old campaign manager.
In January 2013, the young organizer paid me a visit in Washington to explain why Kansas could swing Democratic this year. Over lunch at a Mexican restaurant this week in Lawrence, I asked him how he knew this back then. “We’re a Kassebaum-Dole-Eisenhower state,” Roberts said, referring to two legendary Republican senators and the president from Abilene by way of stressing that Kansas is “a pragmatic, moderate state.”
“We’re not a state of radical experiments,” he said. “Anytime conservatism takes a back seat to raw ideology, Kansans rebuke that idea.”
If Republicans do as well nationwide next Tuesday as many expect, they should pay attention to the reaction unleashed here by Brownback, a former U.S. senator whom Davis regularly accuses of bringing “Washington, D.C.-style politics to Kansas,” which he equates with “hyperpartisan politics.”
Among those who came out to greet Davis here was David Toland, executive director of Thrive Allen County, a social service and economic development organization. He summarized why the decision here matters so much.
“If moderates are starting to push back against the extremism of the Republican Party in Kansas, I cannot believe they won’t be pushing back in other states,” Toland said. “This is a state with a strong conservative tradition that’s in open rebellion against the policies of its own party.”
Conservatism at its finest has been defined by a devotion to moderation. Next week, conservative Kansas may remind the nation that this is still true.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.