Topeka After more than two decades in elected public office in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback is about to step off the political stage to take a low-profile job in the Trump administration as ambassador at-large for religious freedom.
Brownback, 60, has been the winner of five statewide elections — two as governor and three as U.S. Senator, as well as a U.S. House race. His supporters and detractors agree that he has been one of the most electorally successful politicians in state history.
But what kind of legacy he will leave is a matter of great disagreement.
"I think he is — and the word I’ve used before is — ‘consequential.’ He may be the most consequential governor," Kansas Republican Party executive director Clay Barker said.
"And I understand he’s controversial, and people may support or dislike what he did," Barker continued. "But I can’t think of another governor — whether it was (Bob) Bennett in the early '70s, who reformed Kansas government, or (Walter R.) Stubbs back a century ago was the progressive who brought in changes — I can’t think of another governor that’s done more change for Kansas in more areas."
University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis, a vocal critic of Brownback, agreed with that sentiment, saying that his election, at a time when staunch conservatives held solid majorities in the Legislature, marked a unique time in Kansas political history.
"And so he could legislate, whether it was the tax legislation or social legislation or KanCare, you name it," Loomis said. "He could legislate and he could also administer, which I think is a big part of his legacy, kind of the gutting of Kansas government without much interference from the Kansas Legislature. So without question, he is one of the three, four most consequential governors of the last 50 or 60 years."
Brownback actually started his career in government more than 30 years ago, in 1986, as Kansas secretary of agriculture, which was then a position appointed by the state Board of Agriculture. But a federal judge declared that system unconstitutional in 1993 because only members of recognized farm organizations were allowed to vote in elections for the board members.
Brownback was forced to step down from that position, and the following year ran successfully for the 2nd District congressional seat. That was the same year that conservative Republicans took control of the U.S. House in what came to be known as the Newt Gingrich Revolution, referring to the Georgia Republican who became Speaker of the House that year, and Brownback quickly established himself as part of that conservative movement.
But he only lasted one term in the House. In June 1996, then-Sen. Bob Dole stunned the political world by resigning his Senate seat in order to focus full-time on his presidential campaign, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
Then-Gov. Bill Graves first appointed his own lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, to fill the vacancy, but he also called a special election for someone to fill out the remaining two years of Dole's term.
Brownback, who had sought the appointment himself, edged out Frahm in a close Republican primary, then defeated Democrat Jill Docking in a hard-fought general election. He went on to win two regular elections in 1998 and 2004 by wide margins.
In the Senate, he established himself as a strong religious conservative, especially regarding abortion. But he was also an outspoken supporter of international religious freedom, often becoming the first to speak out against religious oppression in places like the Darfur region of Sudan and in Tibet.
At the end of his second full term, in 2010, he stepped down to run for governor. He won easily that year, in part because then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, — the former lieutenant governor who became governor when Kathleen Sebelius was named U.S. Health and Human Services secretary — surprised Kansas Democrats by deciding not to run for a full term.
Barker recalled a conversation he had with Brownback in 2011, shortly after he took office, that he said was a signal about what kind of governor he would be.
"It was in Johnson County. We were driving from the Johnson County office to some event. It may have been a campaign event, I don’t remember exactly," he said.
"He told me, ‘If I wanted to get re-elected, all I have to do is do nothing in the first term and make all my big changes in the second.’ But he says, ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go at this hard, and if I don’t get re-elected, that’s where the chips fall.’ And that was just sort of a one-on-one conversation," Barker recalled.
Brownback did move swiftly in his first term. In his first year, he began reorganizing state health care agencies and attempted to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission, a move that sparked a surprising amount of push-back.
But Brownback's most significant initiative, and the one for which he will most likely be remembered, came in his second year in office, 2012, when he pushed for sweeping, historic tax cuts that he vowed would be "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy."
Today, only a handful of his most ardent supporters still support those tax cuts. Instead, they became a central issue in his re-election bid in 2014, when Brownback was almost unseated by Lawrence Democrat Paul Davis.
And they continued to be a central issue in the midterm elections of 2016, when Kansas voters ousted many of his conservative allies in both chambers and elected a more moderate Legislature that ultimately overrode his veto and repealed many of his tax policies in 2017.
Loomis said he believes that political reversal will eventually define his political legacy.
"I think the first line of his obituary will be, ‘Sam Brownback, whose visionary or highly conservative plan to stimulate the Kansas economy failed miserably, died today,'" Loomis said. "'He was a longtime governor, senator, ambassador, whatever.’ I think this large experiment, which essentially has failed, is the defining element of Sam Brownback’s political career."
The announcement that he has been nominated for an ambassadorship brought out a predictably mixed reaction from his allies and detractors.
"Governor Brownback is uniquely qualified for this position. I wish him all the best in his new post and would like to express my gratitude for his extensive service to the State of Kansas," House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said in a news release.
"This position will be a good fit for Gov. Brownback, a staunch defender of religious freedom. I'm sure he will do a great job," Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said.
But Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay rights advocacy group, and a member of the Kansas Democratic Party's executive committee, blasted Brownback's nomination.
“Governor Brownback is unsuited to represent American values of freedom, liberty, and justice, whether at home or abroad," Witt said in a statement. "His use of religion is little different than that of a bully wielding a club. His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens. He has caused enough damage here in Kansas. We do not wish him upon the world.”
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, was equally harsh in his criticism.
"Sam Brownback will be remembered for becoming the most unpopular governor in America," he said in a news release. "His tax experiment failed to grow the economy as he promised. Instead, his policies have bankrupted our state and led to destroying nearly every agency of state government as well as his own political career."