State House Report

Will South Carolina Take the Yellow Brick Road?

Kansas Holds Warnings for the Palmetto State

By Bill Davis
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How far is South Carolina from going down the same road as Kansas?

According to MapQuest, more than 1,000 miles separate the two states.

But politically, the two states seem closer, more aligned, with more parallels.

That may become a problem for South Carolina if it follows the example of Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s leadership and ultra-conservative promises of growth through Reaganesque trickle-down economic policies — which have actually slowed the economic recovery there, according to national observers.

Right now, Brownback’s tax-cutting and bloodletting at state agencies is causing the governor serious problems. Because he hasn’t delivered promised economic gains, close to 100 former and current Republican officials in that state are openly endorsing his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis.

Kansas used to be a New Deal Democratic state but became solid Republican, as outlined in the political classic, What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. Could the same happen here?

Consider that Kansas and South Carolina are led by conservative Republican governors with national office aspirations — Nikki Haley here and Brownback there.

Both states are small, with our population close to 4 million and Kansas’ close to 3 million. Both states’ economies are improving, but still lagging nationally and regionally, according to federal data.

Both states have conservative political pasts, but with Kansas being more likely to elect Democrats to the top state office than South Carolina, as evidenced by the two terms that Kathleen Sebelius served before being pulled into the Obama administration to run Health and Human Services for five years.

Both governors have attempted purges in their respective state legislatures, with Brownback being far more successful than Haley. Haley has taken criticism for shrinking cabinet agency staffs, as management problems and crises have begun to pile up.

Both governors have pushed to avoid Medicaid expansion and fought successfully to “opt out” of Obamacare, with Kansas privatizing much of its public health care programs.

Burdette Loomis, a Kansas University political science professor and former Sebelius gubernatorial staffer, says Brownback used the extremely negative reaction toward Obamacare to limit the political choices Republicans have in Kansas.

Thanks to the reception that Obamacare received there, Brownback was able to purge many moderate Republicans from the state Legislature, making it more conservative than the state’s voters.

A similar shift has taken place in South Carolina, according to Scott Huffmon, a political scientist in charge of the influential polling center at Winthrop University, but via a different path.

Huffmon holds that while the constant redrawing of districts has made it easier for incumbents to hold onto office, the primaries also have become de facto elections. This has come to mean, according to Huffmon, that candidates become more beholden to the more politically extreme members of their parties.

As a result, politicians have become either more Democratic or more Republican, and thereby more estranged from their districts’ likely political middles.

Politically, Huffmon says Kansans are “upstarts” at being crazy, while South Carolinians “went pro a long time ago.”

KU’s Loomis says regardless of Kansas’s entry onto the political insanity timeline, that “both states seem to be playing from the same book” by relying on discredited tax breaks and cuts to rebound the economy.

Brownback’s state tax and services cuts have created major stresses down the line at the county and municipal government levels, which have to do the unenviable: raise taxes.

But this may be the biggest difference: While South Carolina’s Local Government Fund has been cut this year yet again, the blood isn’t on Haley’s hands. It’s on legislators’ hands.

In South Carolina, thanks to its 1895 constitution, the Legislature can, and does, dominate the office of governor.
And that could be the biggest obstacle to South Carolina becoming the next Kansas — if the Legislature doesn’t agree with Haley, its members can shut her down.

Unlike Brownback in Kansas, Haley’s political allies in the Legislature are few, though growing. Considering how much many members of her own party in the Legislature dislike her and her policies publicly, privately and politically, it will be a long while before Haley can follow in the steps of Brownback, according to a well-placed Republican operative.

This year, that may be Haley’s saving grace. Unfettered, Brownback is now becoming more and more unpopular, and less and less likely to win re-election. For Haley, polls are tightening, but she’s still ahead — by a nose. 

Bill Davis is senior editor of Statehouse Report; reach him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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