July 28

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. (Associated Press)

Republicans need to start asking ourselves what is happening in Kansas and what we are going to do about California.  The governors races in these two states are revealing.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is facing a tough reelection as liberals wave a bloody shirt and try to argue that Brownback’s conservatism has resulted in too many tax cuts and not enough revenue for the state, while many fellow Republicans have also turned against the governor and are slowing his campaign. In California, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is leading challenger Neel Kashkari by over 19 points, Democrats are flying the liberal flag to celebrate what they think their progressive government has accomplished, despite a less-than-sunny economic outlook for their state, while Republicans seem to have all but given up the fight. Something is wrong here.

Luckily, in politics, things are never as good or as bad as they appear.

As liberals declare supply-side economics dead once and for all, they also crow that Brownback has governed straight from the conservative Republican playbook and in the process, has increased the budget deficit and made services suffer in Kansas. In fact, the New York Times wrote that Brownback has “overseen the largest income tax cuts in state history, an expansion of gun rights, restrictions on abortions, sharply reduced welfare rolls, increased voter-registration scrutiny and a paring of state government bureaucracy.”  Good for him – right?  Well, it appears the governor’s efforts have resulted in a spike in the deficit and an unpopular reduction in government services, and he has put himself in political peril. What is the lesson learned here for Republicans?  Will Brownback’s policies begin working if given a little more time? If he is reelected and the deficit in Kansas heals itself, he will be largely vindicated.

Meanwhile in California, it will be revealing to see what percentage of the vote goes to Kashkari, who is both an attractive and articulate Republican. His opponent is a left-wing icon – some would say relic – who doesn’t mask his liberalism. On their face, recent poll numbers suggest that Brown’s old-fashioned tax-and-spend policies have won widespread support. And the Californian state government has maintained – or even accelerated – anti-business policies, punitive environmental measures and a whole grab bag of liberal fantasies that Republicans should never embrace. However, California isn’t out of the woods economically or even close to a clearing – the state’s “wall of debt” still looms and businesses are still fleeing.  But the fact is, Brown is more popular today than when he was elected in 2010.

So if Kashkari doesn’t make a decent showing, offering some hope for other Republican candidates, we will need to conduct a soul-searching autopsy and come up with a new plan. Yes, running in California is tough for the GOP, but we can’t quit California and automatically concede 55 electoral votes; nor can we suddenly become watered down Democrats to appeal to California liberals. We do have to be honest about why our message hasn’t worked there.  Remember, although Republicans are rightly nostalgic about President Reagan, somehow our memory of him has become divorced from the fact that Reagan’s political base was California. The state is too big for us to walk away from, and unfortunately for us, it is unlikely it will divide itself into multiple states where we could compete anytime soon.

2014 looks like a good year for Republicans, but even if there is a grand old celebration after Election Day, party leaders will still need to put Kansas and California under the microscope and start analyzing what lessons can be learned. The conclusions might tell us a lot about what works and what doesn’t as the party prepares for 2016. Republicans will need to do more than get a few new fist-shaking talking points. We need to study what is happening and remember what Shakespeare cautioned: “To thine own self be true.”

Follow Ed on Twitter: @EdRogersDC

Ed Rogers is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog, a political consultant and a veteran of the White House and several national campaigns. He is the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in 1991.