WILL THE G 0 P BE AS CORNY AS KANSAS IN AUGUST?
12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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.
These two events -- the tax debacle and the party establishment's spurning of conservatives in the gubernatorial primary -- triggered a backlash against the Republican chieftains. In 1991, the state's largest and previously non- political anti-abortion group, Kansans for Life, began sponsoring political- training seminars throughout the state. Before long, precincts traditionally controlled by Dole-style Republicans were being won by conservatives. More conservatives were running for the legislature, and their supporters were turning out to vote -- helping the GOP win back the House in 1992. Two years later so many conservatives were elected that they dislodged the moderate House speaker and replaced him with one of their own. This prompted the state party chairman, a Dole ally named Kim Wells, to step aside in favor of the architect of the conservative takeover, former state legislator David Miller.
One of the ironies of the current Senate race is that neither Brownback nor Frahm was an agent of this transformation of their party. Frahm was toiling in the state legislature, practicing a go-along-to-getalong style of governing anathema to the conservatives. And Brownback was serving as state secretary of agriculture, an appointive position reserved for someone obedient to the all-powerful Board of Agriculture. Indeed, as recently as 1994, Brownback was the moderate in the Republican primary for his U.S. House seat, and in the general election he chose not to sign the Contract with America.
Brownback's conversion to Gingrichism left some of his political heirs in Kansas bruised. Rep. Pat Roberts, who is all-but-guaranteed to be the Republican nominee to replace the retiring Kassebaum, has privately criticized Brownback's ambitious streak. A public critic is Dick Bond, an influential state senator who embodies Kansas Republicanism of the old school. He says that Brownback, having run for the House as a traditional Republican, "stepped into a phone booth and changed his [ideological] clothes." Bond's bigger complaint is that "very conservative forces have taken over the Republican party in Kansas and thrown out the moderates."
Yet as Bond himself admits, Brownback will be the beneficiary of the conservative insurgence. "Moderates are lazy," moans Bond. And with the Olympics diverting attention from just about everything, and both candidates stuck in Washington, the Frahm-Brownback race isn't expected to generate much hype or turnout. This spells trouble for the incumbent. Kansans for Life, which maintains a mailing list of about 100,000, will be working for Brownback, spurred by both his pro-life rhetoric and Frahm's support for abortion rights; one of Frahm's first Senate votes was to allow abortions in overseas military hospitals. Brownback, who hammers Frahm as a fiscal liberal, also expects tax and gun groups to mobilize for him (opposition to gun control led to the surprise defeat of Rep. Dan Glickman, a Wichita Democrat, in 1994). His support from leading conservatives should help, too. Endorsements from William Bennett and James Dobson are featured in radio ads, and both Jack Kemp and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have campaigned with Brownback in Kansas. Steve Forbes, who is holding a fund-raiser for Brownback in New York on July 30, says the candidate "wonderfully symbolizes idea- oriented, pro-growth Republicanism."
Frahm is getting help from Kassebaum and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, both of whom are holding fund-raisers. As of July 1, Frahm enjoyed a slight financial advantage over Brownback, though the decision by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to stay neutral -- as an official party organ, it almost always supports the incumbent -- was a big boost for Brownback. The more fundamental problem, as Bond suggested, is that Frahm doesn't have the reservoir of support Brownback does. Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, points out that half of Johnson County, a moderate stronghold, "will be in Colorado vacationing on Election Day."
A series of televised debates will help focus the race, though few doubt that Brownback will be the beneficiary of these encounters. Pete McGill, a Topeka lobbyist and longtime Kansas political operative, says Brownback is ten times better a campaigner than Frahm. That's surely an exaggeration, but Brownback can't be underestimated as a candidate. He was student body president at Kansas State and later honed his public speaking as a law professor and radio broadcaster. In the 1994 general election campaign, his first try at elected office, Brownback defeated a former twoterm governor, John Carlin, with 66 percent of the vote. Since his election, he's spent nearly every weekend in his Topeka district, where his wife and three children still live and where he is still listed in the phone book.
Frahm's performance as a campaigner pales in comparison, although she won a statewide election (for lieutenant governor) in 1994. The Wichita Eagle, one of the state's biggest newspapers, describes her this way: "Envision your mother or favorite gradeschool teacher going to work in Washington, someone who is plump, pleasant, and prodding." On the stump, she's smooth, if a little bit stiff. She has personal stories to tell that ought to come in handy in campaigns; she was raised in a home without running water or electricity, and she adopted an abandoned baby 15 years ago. But like Dole, she fails to evoke her personal experiences in a way that moves voters.
Frahm's strategy is twofold: First, while blurring the ideological distinctions, she contrasts her record with Brownback's. Campaign manager Lott told me, "The issue is performance versus promises." He points out that while Frahm was lieutenant governor she helped deliver a $ 1.3 billion tax cut, while Brownback "has a record of promising many things but coming up short in delivery." Second, she's tying herself to the state's most popular elected officials: Dole and Gov. Graves, who selected her to replace Dole. One of her television ads shows her swearing in as senator and proclaims that she's "picking up where Bob Dole left off." The narrator, who calls her a " common-sense conservative" and whose image appears at the end of the ad, is Graves. In another ad, which attacks Brownback for calling her a big spender, Frahm says, "Bob Dole would never start a campaign in Kansas this way." And all three of her ads tout her fiscal conservatism. To bolster the point, she recently broke with Kassebaum and voted against raising the minimum wage.
But the latest signs from the polls are not encouraging for Frahm. An independent Oklahoma polling firm recently found Frahm, who a month ago led by 24 points, trailing by six points. (Brownback's lead is even bigger among Republicans who voted in 1992 and 1994.) One person whose involvement could help her make up the deficit is Dole, but he's staying neutral.
That's probably wise. He'd gain little from having his candidate win, but would suffer a public-relations blow if his choice were defeated on the eve of the convention. While Kansas isn't precisely representative of the nation at large, its moderate-conservative clash is, and Dole and others shouldn't downplay the significance of the outcome. A Frahm victory would embolden those calling for a kinder, gentler conservatism than the brand pushed by House Republicans.
But a Brownback triumph -- which is looking increasingly likely -- would be a reminder that those who helped thrust the GOP into the majority aren't prepared to give up their revolutionary aspirations just yet.
By Matthew Rees