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SPOTLIGHT
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Ambition: An unlikely gift to Kansas voters

Published on -7/13/2014, 11:16 AM

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In the summer of an even-numbered year, you can smell political ambition in the air. And I like it. I'm a big fan of ambition, political or otherwise. Entrepreneurs have it; many of the best coaches have it, as do their athletes.

But political ambition is like no other, in that candidates put themselves on the line so publicly. It's not your campaign manager or financial backers or staff on the ballot. It's you. Rarely is someone more exposed than when running for office.

Nowhere is this truer than in the historically important 2014 race for the Kansas governorship, which pits two professional politicians, Gov. Sam Brownback and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, against each other.

However much we might yearn for some outsider -- some businessman or reformer -- to seek this office, the hard fact is neither running for governor nor serving in the office is a job for an amateur.

Brownback has been in politics since his student body president days at Kansas State University. He's won every election he's contested, racking up record numbers of votes. To be honest, he's never been truly tested, even when he took on Gov. Bill Graves's appointee, Sheila Frahm, in the 1996 Republican Senate primary, or in that year's general election against Jill Docking.

Every career has an arc, and though Brownback is just 57, he has reached the fully mature stage of his political career. Indeed, Brownback left the Senate in 2010 to create, as governor, a model state where a successful blend of fiscal and social conservatism would propel him onto the national stage, that pinnacle of political ambition.

This has not worked out. Rather, the November election has become a "Survivor"-type referendum on his economic promises and performance in office. That fact in itself offers support for the power of ambition. To his credit, Brownback laid out a clear legislative agenda and has expressed continuing confidence his policies of lower taxes and smaller government will succeed thoroughly and brilliantly -- providing a "shot of adrenaline" to the heart of the Kansas economy.

In short, he has given the people of Kansas clear benchmarks against which he can be judged.

His opponent, Davis, is no less a career politician. Like Brownback, who entered state politics by winning appointment as Secretary of Agriculture, Davis, who turns 42 this week, won his first seat as an appointed mid-term replacement for a legislator, selected by the party's precinct committee representatives. Even more than Brownback, he's never faced a serious electoral challenge.

Both in climbing his party's legislative ladder and in running for governor, Davis has proved a steady performer. But don't mistake steadiness for a lack of ambition. A year ago, while other candidates dithered, Davis forged ahead to wrap up the Democratic nomination. As he has built a campaign team, raised substantial funds and won support from national organizations, Davis has demonstrated skills and determination that have made the race an unexpected toss-up.

So these ambitious career politicians have given Kansas voters a true gift -- a clear choice. There's a Republican incumbent, with his host of specific economic promises and backing for various controversial policies, such as eliminating due process for experienced teachers, and a Democratic legislative party leader, who has opposed almost all of the governor's initiatives.

When ambition counteracts ambition, to paraphrase James Madison, we all benefit as citizens. This campaign will be expensive and messy, and serious differences on issues will be obscured by wild accusations and over-the-top claims. It will be the job of Kansas voters, assisted by the state's journalists, to focus on the record and the implications of choosing one of these ambitious pols as our next governor. Let the campaign begin.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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