- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) - After lifting the spirits of Kansas Democrats eager to oust conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback over his aggressive tax-cutting experiment, challenger Paul Davis appears to be losing ground as the state’s GOP loyalties and a hail of negative television ads take their toll.

The closely watched race has begun moving in the incumbent’s favor since the Republican Governors Association began bombarding television viewers with spots focused on how Davis was caught as a young attorney in a strip club during a 1998 meth raid. An officer reported finding Davis in a back room with a woman wearing only a G-string, a long-ago embarrassment that Republicans have used to question Davis’ judgment.

Other political forces - including the GOP’s 20 percentage-point advantage in voter registration - also are at work. Independent polling in August and September showed Davis leading - at one point by as many as 10 percentage points - but more recently showed the race tied or with Brownback slightly ahead.

Davis said he doubts Brownback’s reported gains are real. Both camps have said they expected the race to tighten just before the Nov. 4 election.

The bespectacled Davis often comes across as a cautious policy wonk, and he’s yet to outline many specific proposals for cleaning up what he portrays as the fiscal mess created by Brownback’s efforts to make Kansas more business-friendly.

Kansas has a history of electing Democrats when GOP governors become unpopular; the minority party has won five of the last 10 races. But Democratic bids to woo disaffected Republicans often fall short after showing early promise.

The GOP label is a powerful advantage.

“I don’t dislike him,” said voter Jim Caskey, a retired furniture store manager from the Roeland Park suburb of Kansas City, referring to Davis. He said he simply prefers “the Republican side.”

Brownback seemed beset by political problems even a few weeks ago.

While the state has gained jobs since Brownback took office in 2011, the growth has remained below national levels, even after the personal income tax cuts Brownback championed took effect. With the top personal income tax rate slashed by 26 percent and the owners of 191,000 businesses exempt altogether from income taxes, nonpartisan analysts have predicted a $260 million budget shortfall by 2016, fueling doubts about future funding for schools. In August, the state’s credit rating was also downgraded, and Brownback was sharply criticized by moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.

Also, there also have been reports of a federal investigation into whether several former Brownback aides improperly profited from their ties to him after entering private business - which Brownback attributed to “a smear campaign.”

Yet Brownback has retained the loyalties of many small business owners. His attack ads against Davis have also helped tilt the balance. This week, he began a television spot arguing that, if elected, Davis will appoint liberal judges who will be soft on crime, and cited the current Kansas Supreme Court majority - also a Brownback target - for overturning death sentences.

“People are looking at this race and determining, on the issues, they stand must closer to me than they do to Paul Davis, or whatever he’s defined or put out on himself,” Brownback said during a recent interview.

Davis said Brownback’s campaign tactics, particularly his ads criticizing the state’s high court, signal desperation. Voters see negative television spots as “just smoke and mirrors” to hide the governor’s record, he said.

“They’re seeing a better course of direction,” he said.

Responding to the strip club attack ads, which featured neon nightclub signs and a close-up of a dancer’s stiletto heels, Davis has said he was single and 26, wasn’t arrested and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Davis may also be vulnerable because, while he’s spent his campaign attacking Brownback, he’s struggled to define himself for voters. Independent polling has shown that as of late September, as much as a third of the state’s likely voters had formed no opinion of Davis or hadn’t heard of him.

AP reporter Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas, contributed to this report.

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Online:

Davis campaign: http://www.davisforkansas.com/

Brownback re-election campaign: http://www.brownback.com/

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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