What's the matter with Kansas? Sorry, couldn't resist. Interestingly, instead of Democrats asking that question and scratching their heads, in 2014 it's Republicans. Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback are in serious electoral trouble. This isn't the first time in recent years that the GOP is in danger of losing a winnable Senate race. However, the reason why they are in danger this year is very different.
Anybody remember 2010? Delaware Republicans nominated Christine O'Donnell for an open Senate seat. She dabbled in witchcraft, then ran an ad where she denied being a witch. Colorado Republicans nominated Ken Buck for the Senate, a man so extreme on reproductive rights that he opposed abortion in cases of rape and incest. Nevada Republicans nominated Sharron Angle to face Sen. Harry Reid. Angle offered this: "I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems."
And then there was 2012. Missouri's Todd Akin dismissed concerns about his opposition to abortion in cases of rape by noting, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Over in Indiana, Richard Mourdock -- two months after Akin made his comments -- was asked a similar question and answered: "I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that's something God intended to happen." In all five races, these extremists beat more moderate Republicans for the nomination. None became a senator. Furthermore, it's likely that Republicans would have taken the Senate in 2010 and held it in 2012.
Now let's look at 2014. In Kansas, the right wing has completely run the show in the state capitol since the 2012 elections, when Sam Brownback (who became governor two years earlier) led a purge of moderate Republicans who were acting as a brake on his agenda in the state Senate. Kansas is now a laboratory for what would happen if conservative Republicans gained full control of government. Empowered state Republicans slashed taxes for the rich, arguing that an economic boom would follow. It didn't, as job growth in Kansas has underperformed the national average (as has Scott Walker's Wisconsin, another state that moved hard right around the same time). But what did follow was a huge hole in the state's budget (while liberal-dominated California is running a surplus and paying down debt).
In a race few saw as even close a year ago, Brownback is now in serious danger of losing to Democrat Paul Davis, a state representative and House minority leader. And so is three-term Sen. Pat Roberts (not to mention Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has inserted himself into Roberts' Senate race by acting as a partisan in the matter of whether the Democrat, Chad Taylor, will be allowed to remove himself from the ballot). Republicans could easily lose all three, according to Survey USA's most recent polling.
Without question, Roberts possesses his own problems as a candidate, thanks to serious questions about whether he actually lives in the state -- exemplified by a recent gaffe in which his (now former) campaign manager said that the senator "went back home" after a narrow primary win. To Virginia.
But the failures of the right-wing Brownback agenda may also be hurting his fellow Republicans on the ballot, including Roberts. Republican former Kansas Senate President Dick Bond, a supporter of Paul Davis, noted: "Brownback is very extreme and he's a load to carry for anyone that's on the ticket with him, including Roberts." Republican moderates like Bond have a storied tradition in Kansas -- the home of Dwight Eisenhower -- and Brownback has alienated them from their party. With the withdrawal (pending a court case following the aforementioned machinations by Kris Kobach) of a weak Democratic nominee, Roberts could well lose the race to Independent Greg Orman, who has not declared which party he would caucus with in the Senate. It is thus a distinct possibility that a Roberts loss could, once again, cost Republicans the Senate majority.
We've seen this movie before. As with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (full disclosure: I have watched it within the past seven days), it gets better every time. But this year something is different, and it may portend a far more meaningful shift in our political system that did its 2010 and 2012 editions. This time, it's not an absurd remark or a general fringeyness that is sinking a GOP candidate -- something from which other Republicans can easily distance themselves. This time it is Republican policy in action, policy implemented by a conservative Republican governor and a conservative Republican legislature, that has literally blown a hole in an entire state's budget. Christine O'Donnell was a joke. Sam Brownback embodies Republican governance.
Unless Republicans repudiate Reaganite supply side (i.e., trickle down) economics -- which stands at the very heart of contemporary, Tea Party conservatism and is the only thing unifying the increasingly disparate social conservative, libertarian, and Chamber of Commerce wings -- they own this debacle. Doing so would represent a break far more fundamental than simply saying that the GOP isn't the party of witches or of "legitimate rape." Failing to do so will compel more and more moderates to vote Democratic, even in red states like Kansas. And that's a recipe for Republicans becoming a permanent minority.