By John Celock
President Trump has announced that he is nominating Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Trump made the announcement Wednesday evening, confirming a long rumored plan for Brownback to leave the governor’s mansion to take a diplomatic job. Brownback, who is ineligible to seek a third term in 2018, will be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R), who has been long mentioned as a likely gubernatorial candidate next year.
“Religious freedom is the first freedom,” Brownback wrote on Twitter Wednesday evening. “The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause.”
Brownback’s departure for the Washington-based post ends what has been a two-decade long dominance by the staunchly conservative Brownback in Kansas politics. A former state agriculture secretary, Brownback served one term in Congress before challenging then U.S. Sen. Sheila Frahm (R) in a special Senate election in 1996. Brownback’s 1996 run upended what had been a plan by then Gov. Bill Graves (R) to place the moderate Frahm in the Senate following the resignation of former Sen. Bob Dole (R).
Brownback’s defeat of Frahm, a former lieutenant governor, was seen as the rise of conservatives within the state Republican Party and battle between moderates and conservatives, a theme that has dominated Kansas politics, particularly since Brownback became governor.
Brownback left the Senate in 2010 to successfully capture the governorship, running on a platform centered around deep tax cuts, a program he was able to enact in 2012. Brownback’s governorship has also seen the writing of a state water plan, a rewriting of the state’s Medicare program and welfare reform. Brownback’s tenure has also seen recurring battles over state education spending, led largely by litigation in front of the state Supreme Court. Brownback called for the state’s previous school funding formula to be replaced by a block grant program in 2015, a plan then ruled unconstitutional. Earlier this year, Brownback signed a new school funding plan written by state lawmakers that largely mirrors of the previous one.
The battle between conservatives and moderates for control of the state GOP has been a large theme during Brownback’s term, with conservatives loyal to Brownback taking control of the state Legislature in 2012. Brownback narrowly won a second term over Democrat Paul Davis in 2014. Moderate Republicans grabbed control of the state Legislature in 2016 setting the stage for repeal of the tax cuts earlier this year, overriding Brownback’s veto.
Brownback’s tenure has been marked by partisan battles between moderate and conservative Republicans and Democrats, including Democrats pushing for Medicaid expansion in the state, a plan largely blocked by Brownback. Lawmakers failed to override Brownback’s veto of a Medicaid expansion bill earlier this year.
Colyer, a plastic surgeon and former state lawmaker, is in line to succeed Brownback for the remaining year of Brownback’s term. Colyer has largely been focused on heath care policy during his time as lieutenant governor. In order to retain the governorship, Colyer will have to battle against a large GOP field in order to gain the nomination to faceoff with the winner of the Democratic primary.
Brownback is the second Kansas governor in recent years to leave during their second term for a presidential appointment. Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) resigned in 2009 to serve as health and human services secretary in the Obama Administration.
Brownback is the third sitting governor tapped for a diplomatic position by Trump this year, following South Carolina’s Nikki Haley for the United Nations and Iowa’s Terry Branstad for China.