Brownback faces verdict from voters on tax cuts

Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, right, makes a point during a debate against his challenger, Democrat Paul Davis in October. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying)

Topeka, Kan. (AP) — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback hoped Kansas voters would validate his conservative tax-cutting experiment by giving him a second term Tuesday after a tough race against a challenger who argued that the incumbent wrecked the state's finances.

Democrat Paul Davis staked his campaign on GOP moderates and unaffiliated voters who thought Brownback went too far with the tax cuts and that the reductions failed to boost the economy as much as the governor predicted.

The 58-year-old governor and his allies painted Davis as a liberal and sought to tie him to Democratic President Barack Obama. Davis, a 42-year-old Lawrence lawyer and the Kansas House minority leader, ran as a centrist who would have a bipartisan administration.

As polls opened across the state by 7 a.m., the race remained close because of doubts about tax cuts enacted by legislators in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging. The state has dropped its top personal income tax rate by 26 percent and exempted the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes altogether — and future cuts are promised.

In the governor's race, Tonya Schwensen, a 43-year-old home-school teacher from Topeka, said she voted for Brownback, largely because of his economic policies. She was unmoved by criticism of the tax cuts, saying she doesn't believe government spends money wisely.

"I like the way he's cutting taxes," she said. "It's helping my attitude toward the government, that's for sure."

But Verla Herschell, 64, an artist who designs covers for a yearbook publisher, said she voted for Davis and that Brownback "didn't do right by us when he reduced taxes." She also said that as a former teacher, she is concerned about school funding and doesn't like that teachers often have use their own money to pay for classroom supplies.

"Education should be the priority," she said.

Republicans enjoy a 20 percentage-point advantage among the state's 1.74 million registered voters, but the state has a recent history of electing Democratic governors when GOP incumbents grow unpopular. Democrats won five of the past 10 governor's races.

Tax-cutting cemented Brownback's reputation in national conservative circles, and he said repeatedly that Kansas was an example to other states and, ultimately, the federal government. But the Legislature's nonpartisan research staff is predicting a $260 million budget shortfall by July 2016, and state credit ratings were downgraded.

Davis suggested that the tax-cutting came at the expense of restoring past, recession-driven cuts in state aid to public schools. Brownback and his allies pointed to data showing that total per-pupil spending on schools has increased since he took office, but Davis and other critics noted that aid for daily classroom operations hasn't kept up with inflation.

Facing skepticism and a public revolt from GOP moderates, Brownback turned partially to the playbook that allowed him to sweep into office in 2010, invoking Obama. Davis was a delegate for Obama at the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions.

The governor also roused core supporters among conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals by promising to defend the state constitution's ban on gay marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider appeals from other states seeking to preserve similar bans. Davis voted as a legislator against adding the ban to the constitution and said the matter was in the hands of the court.

by John Hanna, AP Political Writer

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The Gayly – November 4, 2014 @ 11am