by Jim McClean
Kansas News Service
With help from Vice President Mike Pence, short-handed U.S. Senate Republicans on Wednesday made Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback President Donald Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom.
Pence twice broke ties on nail-biter, party line, votes to ultimately confirm Brownback after months of delay. With the governor being whisked away from his Statehouse job, soon enough, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will be ushered into an interim stint as governor.
The action will give Colyer, a fellow Republican and faithful conservative, an edge in his campaign to win his own four-year term in the office.
Still, the change of command comes after a protracted nomination stalled partly by Democrats in the Senate uneasy with Brownback’s positions on social issues.
They also used the now-chronically troubled condition of the Kansas budget as evidence of what the federal government can expect from new, sweeping tax cuts.
In the end, however, Senate Republicans found just enough votes to put the Kansan on Trump’s diplomatic team.
“I’m happy,” a deadpan Brownback said as he emerged from a Statehouse meeting moments after his nomination narrowly cleared a procedural vote that made certain he would be ambassador. “I’m pleased. It’s a critical job, so I’m excited about being able to do it.”
The new job plunges Brownback into a cause that he feels deeply about as a converted and devout Catholic. He’s long worked to bring attention to religious persecution around the world, particularly in the cases of Christian minorities such as those in Sudan.
Legacy as governor
Brownback also leaves behind a mixed legacy in Topeka. Perhaps no governor in generations has pushed through such a bold and conservative agenda while in office.
In his first term, he authored dramatic tax cuts that he said would invigorate the Kansas economy. The boon never happened, state revenues tumbled and government services were cut.
Brownback and his allies said broader economic factors—particularly low prices for Kansas oil and farm commodities—stunted the supply-side effects of the tax cuts. Critics still say the tax cuts did little to draw in new business and that services for the neediest people in the state atrophied.
Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said Brownback could have left Topeka with a stronger reputation if he’d conceded the tax cuts were a mistake.
“Gov. Brownback would have been an absolute hero if he’d taken his foot off the gas pedal when we were on a path to financial hell,” the Republican lawmaker said.
The departing governor also engineered increasingly strict state laws that made it harder for women to get abortions. He took a controversial, tough love approach to welfare programs that insisted more people go to work or pursue job training. He privatized the management of Medicaid.
More broadly, he shrank the role of state government—along with the services Kansans could expect.
On Wednesday, he said ideas he tried in Kansas are likely to spread.
“We opened up a new area of tax policy, I think, on small businesses,” he said. “You’re going to see (Congress) do welfare reform along the lines of what Kansas did.”
His election as governor in 2010 marked a hard turn to the right after years of a Statehouse often dominated by a coalition of centrist Republicans and Democrats. His re-election in 2014 validated that political success.
Yet, evaporating state revenues and ongoing budget crises that followed his landmark tax cuts chipped away at his popularity. By the end, he was losing battles in the Kansas Legislature, including the fellow Republicans in control, and his poll numbers suggested he was one of the least popular governors in the country.
Colyer assumes office
Now Colyer will finally become the state’s chief executive. That gives him several months during the Republican primary campaign, and perhaps beyond, to raise his profile among voters and leave a mark on state government.
Already, the lieutenant governor had been playing a larger role on the Brownback team, directing key choices in a budget proposed to the Kansas Legislature and weighing in on appointments to state agencies.
The plastic surgeon from Johnson County has increased his public appearances in recent months and has raised more than $600,000 for his election campaign, beating out high-profile contenders thus far, including Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Brownback said Wednesday that Colyer’s “going to do a great job as governor.”
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics.