LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — A Democratic legislator still unknown to some Kansas voters is giving Republican Gov. Sam Brownback a tough re-election race, tapping into doubts about tax-cutting that cemented the incumbent's reputation in conservative circles.
State Rep. Paul Davis has lived much of his life within walking distance of the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, long seen as a liberal, blue island in a red state. He's a bespectacled 42-year-old lawyer and a two-time Democratic National Convention delegate for President Barack Obama.
But Davis, the state House minority leader, is wooing disaffected GOP moderates and promising a bipartisan administration if elected. Making headway in the political middle is crucial for him: Only 24 percent of the state's 1.74 million registered voters are Democrats, while 44 percent are Republicans.
Brownback touts his low-tax, small-government policies as the vanguard of an American revival, but Davis says he doesn't care about the national implications of a Democratic victory in Kansas.
"I'm not in this to make a name for myself," he said during an interview. "I want to get us back going in the right direction."
Even a recent internal Brownback campaign poll — released to counter less favorable independent surveys — showed the race as a tossup.
Davis hasn't started television spots but the airwaves already have been awash in ads. Brownback and pro-Brownback groups have spent more than $1.6 million on ads set to run through September, while an anti-Brownback group has spent more than $300,000, according to documents available online.
The Democratic challenger made a national splash in July with endorsements from dozens of former moderate GOP officeholders, as well as the state's retiring insurance commissioner.
Brownback and his allies believe wavering Republicans and unaffiliated voters will move back to his fold. Former state House Speaker Mike O'Neal, now CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said Davis is appealing only to disaffected Republicans "who defected when voters embraced a more conservative agenda" in recent years.
Brownback said his interactions with Davis have been "personally pleasant" but "pretty highly partisan," in keeping with Davis' role as a Democratic leader. The governor is skeptical Davis could work with a conservative-led Legislature.
"I think you'd set up a situation like you see in Washington, where you've got a liberal president and a conservative House," Brownback said during an interview.
Brownback, 57, was reared on an eastern Kansas farm and was a U.S. senator for 14 years before winning the 2010 governor's race easily.
Davis has served in the Legislature since 2003. His district is atypical for Kansas, with registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans more than 2-to-1.
He grew up mostly in a tree-shaded neighborhood near the University of Kansas campus, the only child of two educators who moved from northern California days after his birth. He walked to Jayhawk basketball games, and his current home south of campus is a little more than a mile away from the childhood one.
Davis played collegiate golf and holds a political science degree. He was an attorney for the state Insurance Department and the Kansas Bar Association before starting a private practice.
"I don't want a red-state model. I don't want a blue-state model," Davis said. "I think most of the good ideas, frankly, are in the center of the political spectrum."
The television-ad disparity concerns some Democrats. Dennis McKinney, a former state treasurer and Democratic leader in the state House from Greensburg, said his southwest Kansas neighbors don't know much about Davis, other than criticism from television ads. McKinney called Davis thoughtful and "careful when he acts" but would like his campaign to be more assertive.
"He's letting himself be defined as a liberal," McKinney said.
A key issue is the personal income tax cuts the governor engineered in 2012 and 2013, worth $4.1 billion collectively through mid-2018. The governor contends they're boosting the economy. Critics argue they've jeopardized the state's finances.
"It's just foolish to believe that there would be a significant change in tax policy and there wouldn't be a competitive race," said Fred Logan, a Prairie Village attorney and former state GOP chairman who is a regional co-chairman for Brownback's campaign.
The Legislature's nonpartisan research staff projects a $238 million budget shortfall for July 2016, but Brownback expects economic growth to eliminate it. Davis proposes indefinitely postponing tax changes set to take effect after January 2015.
"It's not enough for anybody to not be the incumbent to beat the incumbent," said Tom Witt, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Kansas, which backs Davis. "They have to close the deal with voters."
Davis campaign: http://www.davisforkansas.com/
Brownback re-election campaign: http://www.brownback.com/
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