Brownback Could Complicate 2008 Race

Posted January 28, 2005 at 6:40pm

Among the signs bobbing above the assembled throng at last week’s March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., were two worth noting for anyone with an eye on the next presidential race.

One read, “Ohioans for Brownback”; the other, “Values Voters for Brownback ’08.”

That’s Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, hardly a politician with a high profile nationally, but a hero in social conservative circles.

Brownback is also one of a handful of Republican Senators privately mulling a potential presidential bid in three years time, a candidacy that could significantly complicate the hopes of better-known aspirants such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Sen. George Allen (Va.) and Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.)

While the three aforementioned Senators are liked and respected by the party’s ideological right, none has carried the flag for cultural conservatives as unapologetically as the Kansas Senator has during his decade in Congress.

And, if past history is any guide, those conservative voters will have the loudest voice in the early stages of the presidential primary process — particularly the Iowa caucuses.

“The caucuses take sacrifice and time on a cold winter night,” said conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “It draws the people who really care about the issues.”

Few would question Brownback’s private and public dedication to conservative principles and connections to cultural conservatives.

King recently described sitting behind Brownback on a flight and watching the Senator take out a “dog-eared, brown leather Bible” and read from it for 30 minutes before turning to briefing papers “to work on his Senatorial duties.”

Brownback leads a meeting every Tuesday of the Values Action Team, a collection of leaders within the cultural conservative movement.

Brownback is also a regular speaker at national conventions for these groups, as was the case in late September 2004 when he addressed the Christian Coalition’s gala dinner in Washington.

Legislatively, Brownback has kept his focus squarely on issues near and dear to conservatives, most notably abortion.

Last week he introduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which is aimed at forcing doctors to provide information to pregnant women about the pain felt by unborn children before they perform abortions.

A Kansas politico with ties to Brownback likened the distinction between the Senator and his other conservative colleagues to “the difference between a chicken and a pig at a ham and eggs breakfast.

“The chicken is involved but the pig is committed,” said the source.

But Brownback is decidedly noncommittal about his future prospects.

“I don’t want to get sidetracked on something four years from now when there are so many things to concentrate on now,” he said in an interview in the Capitol last week. “The next nine months is prime [legislative] real estate.”

Brownback did acknowledge, however, that “people talk to me about it” and did not rule out the possibility of a presidential run.

Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), who replaced Brownback in the House and also shares his ideology, said that he has counseled the Senator “to fulfill his dreams and visions.”

Without question, there would be major hurdles for Brownback to overcome if he hopes to seriously compete for the nomination, not the least of which is that he would be viewed by many establishment Republicans as a “fringe” candidate.

“They like him and his positions but don’t believe he’s a serious candidate for 2008,” said one senior Republican operative. “He’s too nice, not a heavyweight.”

Realistically, even some Brownback allies admit that if the Kansas Senator was able to catapult himself into the mix for vice president in 2008, that would be viewed as a major success.

Brownback’s Senate colleagues have already spent considerable time burnishing their résumés, staffs and fundraising contacts for 2008.

Frist, who has served as leader of Senate Republicans since January 2003, has already seeded key early caucus and primary states with thousands of dollars from his leadership political action committee in preparation for a presidential bid.

Allen just completed a term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, overseeing the GOP’s gain of four seats including the defeat of then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — a win that earned him the undying affection of many party activists. Allen has also moved quickly to lock up several highly regarded staffers who would form the upper echelon of a 2008 campaign team.

Santorum is the most visible conservative in Senate leadership but must worry about getting re-elected in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania in 2006 before turning his full attention to any presidential aspirations.

A quick look at Brownback’s electoral past shows a willingness to take political risks despite the presence of establishment roadblocks.

In his first run for Congress in 1994, Brownback, who had served as Kansas secretary of Agriculture, defeated a former two-term Democratic governor with 66 percent of the vote to take back a seat previously held by the opposition party.

Less than 18 months later, Brownback declared for the seat Sen. Bob Dole (R) had vacated just two days earlier to concentrate on his presidential bid.

In the Republican primary four months later, Brownback squared off against Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm, who had been appointed to the Senate by the sitting GOP governor and was also endorsed by retiring Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R).

Brownback beat Frahm by 13 points and then went on to defeat Jill Docking (D), who hailed from one of the state’s most well-known political families, with 54 percent in the general election — a margin aided by the presence of fellow Kansan Dole at the top of the ticket.

He raised and spent roughly $2.3 million on that race, the largest amount he has ever expended on a political contest. To make a serious presidential primary bid, a candidate must raise upwards of $20 million.

The other obvious problem for Brownback is the small population base of Kansas, making a leap to the national level a bit more difficult.

“We’re a very small state,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who previously served in the House with Brownback. “You have to have a larger platform to build on.”

Brownback’s backing among social conservatives could supply that platform, according to Roberts.

“Conceivably, nationally, among these groups they would encourage Sam or at least seek his advice and counsel,” said Roberts.

That support from the party’s conservative wing could be crucial to launching Brownback into the top tier of candidates if — as expected — Iowa retains its first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2008.

In polling, roughly 75 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers regularly identify themselves as “conservatives” and they have shown a penchant for supporting underdog candidates that hail from the party’s ideological right.

Brownback’s chances to make a splash in Iowa could be further bolstered if — again, as expected — a large field emerges that includes personality-driven candidates like Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

A look back at caucus history shows that the combination of a fractured field and a strong social conservative candidate can make for a potent political mixture.

In 2000, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the caucuses with 41 percent. But publishing magnate Steve Forbes, championing a family values message, took 30 percent; and Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, both of whom aggressively sought support almost solely from the party’s right, took a combined 23 percent.

Four years earlier, conservative stalwart Pat Buchanan came within 3,000 votes of topping Dole, the prohibitive establishment favorite.

That result was a mirror image of the 1988 caucuses when televangelist Pat Robertson shocked the political world by beating out Vice President George H.W. Bush for second place thanks to his strong support among evangelical Christians.

In each case, however, the candidate backed by the establishment pulled through despite the scare by a red-meat conservative — a potentially ominous sign for Brownback.