The Blog


12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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The brutal clash between moderates and conservatives expected at the Republican national convention in August is already unfolding in Kansas. At stake is the Republican nomination for Bob Dole's Senate seat and a lot more. The outcome of the Kansas primary on August 6 will affect the mood in San Diego and signal the prospects for the Republican Congress in November. The bedrock issue, in the words of social conservative Gary Bauer, is "whether the GOP will be a Reagan-style party or . . . go back to a mushy country-club Republicanism."

Incumbent senator Sheila Frahm, appointed after Dole retired, is the standard-bearer for the moderates. She blasts her challenger for his "slash and burn" approach to budget cutting. Undaunted, Sam Brownback, prototypical House GOP freshman, says those who would "simply skim spending off the top" are pushing the "tough decisions onto future generations."

No one will accuse Brownback of being a skimmer. He proposes to eliminate the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development and to "refocus the federal government . . . on its core missions. " His folksy, buoyant demeanor and small-town Kansas background make him an attractive leader for the New Federalists, a group of House members he organized to lobby for devolving power to the states. His political roots go back to Reagan, and he yearns for Reaganstyle reductions in marginal tax rates. Yet he also reflects the influence of Ross Perot (who took 27 percent of the vote in Kansas in 1992). Brownback is staunchly for term limits and balanced budgets and prods House leaders to move on campaign finance reform.

Frahm is no liberal, but she lacks Brownback's conservative credentials. That's not stopping her from spouting conservative rhetoric. Her campaign literature calls her "A Conservative Voice for Kansas," emphasizing reductions in taxes and spending. Her campaign manager, Bruce Lott, notes that he previously worked for right-wingers like Sen. Trent Lott (no relation) and Mike Huckabee, the new governor of Arkansas, and is himself "very conservative." What about the candidate? "Sheila and I . . . are more of the deliberative, calculating type," admits Kansas governor Bill Graves, " cautious in our approach." On fiscal issues Frahm and Brownback appear to be divided less by ideology than by temperament. Both want balanced budgets and tax cuts. Scratch the surface, though, and you'll find she stresses the former, he the latter.

The real contrast is on social issues: He's pro-life, she's pro-choice. That mattered less as recently as five years ago. Back then, she comfortably fit the profile of a mainstream, right-leaning Republican. But in the intervening period the Kansas GOP establishment (including Dole, even though he maintained his pro-life voting record) has been thrown on the defensive, as socially conservative voters have been energized. These days, to be identified, as Frahm is, as the "Bob Dole Republican" no longer guarantees victory in Kansas.

The battle being waged across the state is a microcosm of the intra- Republican wrangling on the national scene. With Dole and Nancy Kassebaum ensconced in the Senate since 1969 and 1979 respectively, the new conservatism that has prevailed in the GOP nationally never found a voice among Kansas's top elected officials. Thus, it was a Republican-controlled Kansas legislature that in 1986 voted for a new property tax system, raising property taxes for many homeowners and businesses. When the rates went into effect in 1989, 2,000 usually reticent Kansans protested outside the state capitol. The property-tax fiasco yielded a conservative primary challenge to the Republican governor in 1990. The party establishment, including Dole (and George Bush), weighed in heavily for the incumbent, Mike Hayden, and helped him eke out a narrow primary victory. But Hayden's luck dried up in the general election, and he lost to Democrat loan Finney. Democrats, capitalizing on the Republican disarray, also won control of the House, controlling both the governor's office and the House for the first time since 1913.