By Carey Gillam
OVERLAND PARK Kan. (Reuters) - Paul Davis has emerged as the potential wrecker of red state politics.
The 42-year-old Democratic nominee for governor in Kansas, one of the nation's reddest states, was a long shot when he announced his candidacy. Nearly a year later his moderate platform is drawing enough support from voters disenchanted with the Republican candidate, incumbent Governor Sam Brownback, and the state's flagging economy that Davis is threatening to upend the race.
Support for Davis, the Kansas House minority leader, has climbed in recent weeks as Brownback's policies have coincided with a drastic decline in state revenue and mounting fears about funding shortfalls for schools.
Campaign finance reports filed Monday with the Kansas secretary of state's office showed Davis taking in 50 percent more money than Brownback so far this year. The Davis camp reported receiving $1.12 million from January through July 24, while Brownback received $744,000 in contributions.
"Kansas is a traditionally Republican state, but... you are seeing a big segment of Republicans who are unhappy with Governor Brownback," Davis said in an interview. "My belief that we are going to win is growing."
Davis, a lawyer turned lawmaker who is making his first run at statewide office and is still relatively unknown by many Kansans, would seem an unlikely worry for Brownback, 57, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate who is beloved by conservative Republicans across the country for slashing income taxes and championing gun rights and anti-abortion laws.
But a poll released on July 24 by KSN-TV in Wichita, conducted by SurveyUSA, showed Davis ahead of Brownback, 48 percent to 40 percent, with a margin of error of 2.9 percent. A similar poll in June also showed Davis ahead.
"The Davis campaign senses they have a shot here," said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
Another sign of Davis' bipartisan support: On July 15 dozens of the state's moderate Republican leaders, including three former state senate presidents, endorsed him.
The defection followed news that the state’s tax collections fell $310 million short of forecasts in April and May, and came in roughly $28 million short in June.
The shortfall comes after Brownback pushed through a 25 percent reduction in the top income tax rate and eliminated taxes on some non-wage small business income.
Brownback, who took office in January 2011 after more than 14 years in the U.S. Senate, has defended his economic strategy, saying his Kansas "renaissance" will prove a model for other states.
Still, as Election Day nears, some voters seem unwilling to wait.
"I will be voting for Paul Davis," said Jane Brown, a 62-year-old registered Republican. "It will be more a vote against Brownback rather than for Davis."
Davis' moderate approach is designed to lure in Republicans while not losing Democrats. He has pledged no further income tax cuts but also says he won't raise them. And Davis, the father of a 4-year-old daughter, promises to push for improvements in public schools.
Brownback has been hitting the campaign trail hard to counter the criticism. On July 23 the governor announced plans for a $75 million training complex for soccer players, coaches and referees in Kansas City, Kansas. And the campaign touts the 55,000 jobs created since January 2011, though critics say federal statistics show Kansas has one of the country's worst job growth rates.
The campaign is pointing to a poll from the research firm YouGov released Sunday that has Brownback leading Davis by 10 points, 47 percent to 37 percent.
"You've got the red state model and the blue state model," Brownback said on his campaign website. "One of these models is going to end up winning... That model is going to go, I think, nationwide."
Chris Ingo, a 56-year-old mother of two adult children from Olathe, Kansas, and a Tea Party supporter, said she is not fond of all of Brownback's strategies. But he will get her vote, she said, because of his focus on "low-tax, pro-business, pro-life" issues.
One clue to Brownback's strength will come Aug. 5 when he faces Wichita business owner Jennifer Winn in the state's Republican primary.
If Winn gets more than 15 percent of the vote, it will signal that the discontent with Brownback might be sufficient to unseat him, Rackaway said.
Lifelong Kansan John Guiot, a 53-year-old father of six who says he is a former Republican turned independent, says he knows Brownback's plan to fuel the economy is not working.
"The state of Kansas is a national joke," said Guiot, a construction contractor from Chanute, Kansas. "We need change."
(Additional reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Mo.; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Douglas Royalty)