The race to fill the Wichita-area House seat vacated by Republican Mike Pompeo, named by President Trump to head the CIA, has the potential to embarrass Republicans. Unless Republican Ron Estes wins overwhelmingly on Tuesday, you can count on one of two narratives setting in: a) foreshadowing that the public is turning against Donald Trump, or b) a crushing rebuke of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s controversial 2012 tax reform efforts.
Even a narrow Estes victory will result in one of these narratives—possibly both—being bandied about in the media.
In the case of Trump, this is the first such election since he was sworn in, so it’s logical that people might attribute more to it than is warranted when you consider there are 435 House seats. Trump, however, will have other shots to change (or reinforce) this narrative. A special election in Georgia takes place next week to replace Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price.
The bigger problem would be if this election serves as a case study to demonstrate that tax cuts are bad policy and a political loser. This would not only be unfortunate; it would also be misleading. The embattled Brownback seems to have been a uniquely bad governor, and his tax reform seems to have encountered some uniquely difficult circumstances.
To get a better handle on the conservative response to this, I talked to Grover Norquist, head of Americans for tax reform. According to Norquist, the main problem with Kansas’ tax reform was that they weren’t able to rein in spending. The reason for this was court-ordered spending on schools.
Brownback’s efforts were further complicated by Kansas’ dropping prices on oil and agriculture—and the fact that (although Kansas is thought of as conservative) the historic Republican domination of the state means that the legislature is still packed with plenty of “Bob Dole” moderates who watered-down Brownback’s plans.
“Kansas has a history of congenital Republicans,” explains Norquist.
On top of that, he says, an expected tax increase on capital gains on the start of 2013 led people who could control the timing of their income to claim as much of it as possible in the final quarter of 2012. The Kansas legislature seems to have misread this as a permanent increase in revenue—which turned out to be a huge mistake.
Norquist describes these factors as "a perfect storm of things that were problematic.”
Ultimately, though, the problem with using Kansas as a warning is that other states have cut taxes without facing the problems that have plagued Kansas. States like Florida, Texas, and Arizona stand out as positive examples. But North Carolina is the state Norquist believes should be the model.
A document one of Norquist’s press aides sent me makes the case that Kansas should not be the model:
“Unlike in Kansas, North Carolina lawmakers were smart to keep spending in check, below the rate of growth in population and inflation, at the same time that they approved $5 billion in tax relief. As a result, the state has realized repeated budget surpluses and has experienced the aforementioned job and economic growth rates exceeding national and regional averages. North Carolina lawmakers now want to use the latest surplus to return money to taxpayers and further improve the state tax code.”
North Carolina, it should be pointed out, has also faced a backlash of raucous protests and demonstrations over policies such as cuts to education spending.
There is, it seems, no easy way to cut taxes and spending. Even if you pull it off—and that’s a big “if”—someone is always going to be upset. It remains to be seen whether that anger will manifest at the ballot box in Kansas tonight. But if it does, the reverberations will be felt all across the nation.