Kansas governor relies on Obama as foil

Barack Obama

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is already playing off his preferred political foil at the start of his campaign for re-election — Barack Obama.

The Democratic president’s administration gave the conservative Republican governor openings with last week’s proposed rule for curbing carbon emissions from power plants and its earlier listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species. The federal government’s actions have stirred up business and agriculture constituencies that lean toward the GOP but aren’t considered as rock solid as abortion opponents or gun-rights enthusiasts.

Brownback and his allies are building a narrative designed to aid the governor’s re-election in his GOP-leaning state. Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold acknowledged that it starts with the premise that early in the campaign, many voters still don’t know much about Davis, including that the Kansas House minority leader was an Obama delegate to the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions.

“It’s easy to compare Davis and Obama,” Arnold said. “We associate the two together.”

Democrats argue the tactic is designed to distract voters from questions about Brownback’s record, particularly whether personal income tax cuts he championed provided their biggest benefits to the wealthy and are starving public schools and social services of necessary dollars.

They intensified their criticism of Brownback after tax collections in May fell $217 million short of expectations. The governor and his critics debated whether the shortfall came in the wake of investors’ uncertainty about federal tax policy or showed that Brownback underestimated the generosity of his tax breaks for professionals, business owners and other top earners.

“Campaigning against Obama is the only strategy he’s got,” said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon.

Of course, the new rule for power plants, the lesser prairie chicken’s listing and Brownback’s responses have significant implications beyond politics, both for the environment and Kansas businesses and landowners.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week that its new rule would require Kansas to cut power plants’ emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming by 23 percent by 2030. The rule gives states the flexibility to devise their own plans, but Kansas has resisted such regulations — and the rule was announced three days after Brownback’s administration gave the regulatory go-ahead to a new, $2.8 billion coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas.

Brownback contends allowing the new plant will help develop “clean coal technologies” to cut emissions and that the development of wind farms is moving Kansas toward lower reductions without formal regulations.

As for the lesser prairie chicken, state officials contend the threatened bird’s population will rebound as drought conditions ease in western Kansas. Brownback argues the federal government’s listing threatens to restrict the activities of farmers, ranchers and oil and natural gas producers and stick them with costly conservation fees.

Leaders of state and national environmental groups have disputed Brownback’s arguments, but the governor considers both the EPA rule and the bird’s listing as examples of federal overreach. Last week, he crafted an argument touching on themes that appeal to farmers, ranchers and business operators who also might be worried about future funding for their public schools after his tax cuts.

“Instead of going with a market-based approach where people will work with you, we’re going to go and drop the hammer,” Brownback said. “People don’t react well to that.”

Arnold said both the EPA rule and the prairie chicken listing are legitimate issues for the governor’s race because Davis wouldn’t push back as much as Brownback. Arnold contends Davis would be “in lockstep” with the administration.

Davis, the Kansas House minority leader, scoffs at the argument. He said that on both issues, he’d educate federal officials about the state’s needs and the problems caused by their policies, then push for accommodations. He said he understands that as governor, he would be accountable to the state’s voters, not the president.

“The governor’s style has typically been to try to score political points rather than to try to meaningfully engage the federal government and try to make some legitimate progress,” Davis said.

He added: “In two years, there may very well be a Republican in the White House, and you know I’m not going to blindly oppose everything that person may want to do because they’re a Republican.”

Davis has sought to keep the governor’s race focused on Brownback’s fiscal policies, portraying the personal income tax cuts — worth more than $4 billion through mid-2018 — as a failed experiment in boosting the economy.

Brownback and his allies defend the tax cuts as already helping the state to grow, but the appeal of an anti-Obama message for his re-election campaign is strong. After all, even Democrats concede the tactic worked well for GOP conservatives in 2010 and 2012, given the power they now wield in state government.

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