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12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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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.