By Jim McLean, with contributions from Stephen Koranda and Sam Zeff
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s long-rumored move to a position in President Donald Trump’s administration is no longer rumor.
The president on Wednesday announced his intention to nominate Brownback, a social conservative with deep religious convictions, to head the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. State Department. As ambassador at large, Brownback's mission would be to monitor and respond to threats to religious freedom around the world.
“Religious freedom is the first freedom. The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause,” Brownback said in a tweet as news of the nomination was breaking.
Statehouse observers have been speculating about Brownback’s departure since March when Kansas Public Radio reported that he was under consideration for a position in the administration.
Early reports Wednesday evening said that Brownback had resigned, but his spokesperson, Melika Willoughby, said in an email that “the governor is still governor of Kansas.”
“We will have a press conference tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon,” she said.
Brownback, the state’s 46th governor, has about 18 months remaining in his second term. Should he step down, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a physician and former state senator from Overland Park, would become governor.
Brownback would leave office as one of the least popular governors in the nation. That’s largely due to the income tax cuts he championed, which instead of igniting the Kansas economy as he promised sent state revenues plummeting, prompting lawmakers to cut spending and raise taxes to deal with annual holes in the state budget.
At the time of their passage in 2012, Brownback said the tax cuts would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy and make it a “red state model” for the nation.
Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers, led by a coalition of newly elected Democrats and moderate Republicans, dealt a significant blow to Brownback's political reputation by overriding his veto of a bill that reversed the tax cuts.
“Sam Brownback will be remembered for becoming the most unpopular governor in America,” Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said in a statement on Twitter. “His tax experiment failed to grow the economy as he promised. Instead, his policies have bankrupted our state.”
Others hold him in higher esteem.
“He inspires other people,” said Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director for Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion organization.
“He’s inspired some conservative leaders who had terrible bruises from the last couple of decades. He said ‘hang in there, stay with it. Let’s keep working.’”
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin in southwest Kansas, said he appreciated the focus Brownback brought to state water issues, particularly his efforts to extend the life of the Ogallala aquifer.
"While I have not always agreed with Governor Brownback, I appreciate his efforts to elevate the discussion in Kansas on water issues," Jennings said.
Prior to his election as governor in 2010, Brownback served 14 years in the U.S. Senate. Near the end of his one and only term in the U.S. House, Brownback was appointed in 1996 to fill the seat of U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who resigned to run for president. Kansans elected him to a full term in the Senate in 1998 and re-elected him in 2004.
Before his election to Congress in 1994, Brownback had been the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture.
Brownback had also been the favorite of many social conservatives when he joined a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls in 2008. Many believed that he ran for governor to burnish his reputation as a fiscal conservative in preparation for another bid for the White House.
Those aspirations faded with the failure of his economic policies, said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist.
“Certainly, we can look at the totality of his career and see some successes and some failures,” Miller said. “But this (the failure of the tax cuts) will be the policy that writes his Wikipedia page in a decade or so.”