By John Celock
A tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday has confirmed the nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The U.S. Senate voted 50-49 to confirm Brownback, a former senator, to the State Department post with Pence needed to break two 49-49 party line votes. Brownback’s confirmation, seven months after his nomination, paves the way for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) to become the next governor of Kansas.
The Senate’s close vote on Brownback’s nomination came as Democrats objected to Brownback’s conservative record in Kansas, including his decision to repeal a LGBT rights executive order enacted by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). Brownback, who served 14 years in the Senate before being elected governor in 2010, has been known as one of the most conservative governors in the nation.
Brownback’s close call differs from the traditional courtesy granted by the Senate to their former colleagues when nominated by the president, but is similar to the debate over the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama senator, last year. Sessions was confirmed 52-47 by his colleagues, while a sitting senator.
Two other former senators nominated by Trump for ambassadorships had easy confirmation by their former colleagues. Former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) won unanimous consent to be ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) was confirmed 94-4 to be ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.
The last former senator to be defeated for Senate confirmation was former Texas Sen. John Tower (R) who was not confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary in 1989, following debate over his drinking.
Pence had to vote to break a tie on a procedural vote to advance Brownback’s nomination and then on Brownback’s confirmation, marking his seventh and eighth tie breaking votes. Last year, Pence had to break the tie to confirm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Brownback’s confirmation brings to a close a three-decade career in Kansas politics that has reshaped the state’s politics. A former state agriculture secretary, Brownback was elected to Congress in 1994, quickly becoming known as a conservative leader in Washington and Kansas.
Following Republican Bob Dole’s June 1996 Senate resignation to focus on his presidential campaign, Brownback announced his decision to challenge appointed Sen. Sheila Frahm, a moderate Republican, in the August 1996 GOP primary. Brownback defeated Frahm, marking the beginning of a rise of conservatives in the state GOP, and then Democrat Jill Docking that November. Brownback was known in the Senate as one of the Senate’s most conservative members, but also for his focus on international human rights issues. Brownback briefly sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.
Brownback easily won the state’s open governorship in 2010, ushering in a more conservative period in state government, including 2012 primary battles that conservatives won. Brownback’s first term was marked by his signature tax cuts, which were largely opposed by moderates and Democrats over concerns for the long-term impact of the state. His tenure has also been marked by debates over abortion and education funding, and battles with the state Supreme Court.
Brownback narrowly won a second term over Democrat Paul Davis in 2014. His second term was marked by continued battles over the school finance issue and the tax cut impacts and a rise of moderates, who won back legislative seats in 2016 primaries, along with growth of the legislative Democratic caucus. His final year in office saw the tax cuts repealed with lawmakers overriding his veto and Brownback battling to block lawmakers from enacting the Medicaid expansion.
Brownback’s final months have also been marked by questions on who was running the state, with Colyer taking an increasingly public role in running the state. Brownback’s final budget presented earlier this month was largely met by opposition from both parties.
Brownback was conducting official duties earlier on Wednesday, speaking at a school choice rally and chairing a meeting of the state Finance Council, which advanced a plan to build a new prison in Lansing.
Brownback’s resignation elevates Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon who has been lieutenant governor since 2011, to the governorship. Colyer is currently locked in a seven way GOP primary for governor.
Brownback, one of the nation’s most unpopular governors, is the second consecutive elected Kansas governor to leave office early for a Washington post. Sebelius resigned in 2009 to become health and human services secretary in the Obama Administration. Sebelius was succeeded by Democrat Mark Parkinson who did not seek a full term in 2010.