State Senator Jim Denning and Governor Laura Kelly.
Photo: John Hanna/AP/Shutterstock
After the 2010 tea-party wave put Sam Brownback in governor’s mansion in Kansas — and conservative majorities in both houses of its legislature — the state’s Republican Party decided to implement the American right’s blueprint for utopia.
For decades, Democrats (and spineless RINOs) had made it impossible for conservatives to enact their true agenda on the federal level. Under Reagan and the Bushes alike, the right had been forced to compromise its principles and water down its recipes for shared prosperity. But in Brownback’s Kansas, the movement would finally be able to show the world the economic miracles that “small government” could produce. As Brownback told the Wall Street Journal in 2012, “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.’ ”
In hindsight, Brownback’s model looks less like a prototype for building Ayn Rand’s paradise than a framework for how the GOP could one day shrug off the shackles of libertarian economics and become a minimally responsible center-right party again.
I’ve recounted the rise and fall of “Brownbackistan” elsewhere, so I won’t retell the story in too much detail here. Suffice it to say: Under the tea-party governor’s leadership, Kansas Republicans slashed the state’s top personal-income-tax rate by 29 percent, and eliminated all income taxes on 330,000 farmers and business owners, while tightening welfare requirements, privatizing the delivery of Medicaid, cutting $200 million from the education budget, eliminating four state agencies, and laying off 2,000 government employees. This windfall for the country-club set (and gut-punch for the poor) was supposed to deliver turbocharged economic growth for Kansans of all classes. Instead, the Sunflower State saw its economy grow more slowly than its neighbors, while its schools adopted four-day weeks, low-income residents lost Medicaid, and what remained of its public sector raided the state’s rainy-day fund just to keep the lights on.
Kansas voters may have found “small government” appealing as an abstract concept. But when the rubber hit the pothole-filled road, they soured on austerity. Although Brownback eked out reelection in another strong midterm year for Republicans, by 2016 he was the most unpopular governor in the country. That same year, several moderate Republicans unseated conservative incumbents in state GOP primary elections. After taking office, the moderates joined forces with the state’s Democratic majority to reverse Brownback’s tax cuts over the governor’s veto. And in 2018, Kansas replaced Brownback with Democrat Laura Kelly, as the state’s historically Republican suburbs turned blue.
Which brings us to the news of the day. Kansas is one of 14 states to have declined to implement the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Under Brownback, the state not only declined the opportunity to extend public health insurance to the working class on Uncle Sam’s dime but actually threw 1,414 Kansans with disabilities off its traditional Medicaid program. In 2017, the state legislature’s moderate coalition tried to adopt the expansion, only to run into Brownback’s veto. But on Thursday, Governor Kelly and the Republican leadership of the state senate finally struck a compromise that will provide 150,000 more Kansas residents with affordable health insurance.
By itself, the fact that Kansas Republicans surrendered on Medicaid expansion is unremarkable. The program’s strong support among hospitals and other business groups has forced conservatives to acquiesce in other states. What’s striking about the deal struck between Kelly and state senate majority leader Jim Denning Thursday is not its existence but its terms.
In the much bluer state of Virginia, Republicans forced their newly elected Democratic governor to include work requirements in its Medicaid expansion, despite the utter dearth of evidence that such provisions promote labor-force participation or serve any other purpose beyond making it harder for poor people to access medical care. In Kansas, the GOP also sought work requirements initially. But when Governor Kelly rejected that proposal, Republicans settled for a “program to refer Medicaid recipients to services to help them find and train for jobs.” In other words, the GOP extracted a provision that would actually serve their party’s official goal of helping underemployed Americans enjoy the “dignity of work,” as opposed to one that would use such rhetoric as a smoke screen for restricting coverage.
The GOP pushed for one other “concession” from Kelly — a program that would raise taxes on cigarettes to increase health-care subsidies for middle-income people. As the Washington Post reports:
The plan from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning would give Kelly the straightforward expansion of state health coverage that she has advocated … But Denning would get a version of a program that he has proposed for driving down private health insurance premiums to make it less likely people would drop existing private plans for Medicaid.
Denning had proposed financing his new program by increasing tobacco taxes, including a $1-per-pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax, to $2.29. His compromise with Kelly gives the state a year to develop the premium-reduction program and drops the tax increase, which Kelly and many lawmakers thought wasn’t likely to pass anyway.
In other words, the Republican state senate majority leader wanted to increase taxes to fund new social spending but dropped the tax-hike bit in the face of Democratic objections.
This is what a functional center-right party looks like: upholding the traditionalist value of hard work, but not by condemning low-income people to preventable deaths. Protecting an incumbent business interest (private insurers), but in a way that nevertheless advances the median voter’s material interests (through premium subsidies). And trying to finance middle-class benefits with regressive taxation — but with the kind of regressive taxation that that actually saves lives.
The Kansas GOP still has a deeply reactionary right wing (see Kobach, Kris). Further, Denning’s caucus did block Medicaid expansion for weeks before finally giving in. And, as far as expansions of the safety net go, allowing the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanding health-insurance coverage is the lowest of hanging fruit.
Nevertheless, today’s compromise affirmed the Kansas GOP’s independence from Charles Koch. And it therefore suggests that a better national Republican Party is possible or, at least, that one might be.
In Kansas, voters got a clear sense of the conservative movement’s economic priorities. Moderate Republican politicians started challenging conservative incumbents while others defected to the Democratic Party, thereby imposing costs on the GOP for sheltering extremism. And, just as they’ve been doing in states all across the country, Kansas’s suburbs moved left. All these developments played a role in making Thursday’s agreement possible, but the last one loomed especially large: In the 2018 election, Kelly carried Denning’s heavily suburban county by 19 points.
Whether all this adds up to a “model” for Republican reformation remains to be seen. But, at the very least, the good people of the Sunflower State aren’t living in the tea party’s Kansas anymore.