In 1988, the arrival of the religious right and social conservatism as formidable and entwined forces in the Republican Party was signaled when Pat Robertson received 25 percent of the vote in the Iowa presidential nominating caucuses, second to Bob Dole's 37 percent. Seventeen years later, when Robertson was asked on ABC's "This Week" who he thought might make a fine Republican nominee in 2008, he began his answer: "There's an outstanding senator from Kansas..."
Sam Brownback, 48, won the Senate seat Dole vacated when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1996. In 2008, all Republican aspirants will seek the support of the religious right and other social conservatives. Those factions are a large portion of the party and a larger portion of the party's primary voters.
Two candidates could have special strength with that group. One is Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, if in 2006 he survives what seems certain to be a difficult campaign for a third Senate term. The other will be Brownback, whose recent travels have taken him to, among other places, Iowa, which is close to Kansas, and to New Hampshire.
Brownback, who is not coy about his interest in the 2008 nomination, doubts that Santorum--a friend and former Capitol Hill roommate who participated in Brownback's recent conversion to Roman Catholicism--will seek that nomination. Brownback notes that the first mini-event of the next presidential cycle--the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August 2007--will come just nine months after Santorum's re-election campaign ends. Other candidates will have had more time to organize in Iowa. And, Brownback says, Santorum is young, so he can wait. Santorum is 20 months younger than Brownback.
Raised on a farm near the town of Parker (population today: 281), Brownback was elected to Congress in 1994, when the Republicans' 52-seat gain ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House. Two years later, he entered the Republican primary to fill Dole's seat. He flatly says, "Pat [Robertson] got me elected in 1996."
He means that in the 1988 presidential season, when Robertson was competing against Dole, Robertson organized conservative Christians in Kansas. And once organized, Brownback says, "They stayed in the game." In 1996, they powered him to a 13-point primary victory over the candidate backed by Dole's organization.
Brownback says that what Robertson did in a few states 17 years ago, the president's re-election campaign did nationwide last year. So Brownback's plan for 2008 is to reprise his 1996 experience, when he capitalized on Robertson's work. In 2008, he plans to build upon the "tens of millions of dollars" the Bush campaign spent to mobilize evangelical Christians. "They didn't go away" after the election, he says.
Brownback says opposition to same-sex marriages has "broadened the movement" of social conservatism. However, opposition to abortion is still the movement's molten core. He insists there is a pro-life majority--a majority opposed to abortion other than in cases of rape or incest or when it is necessary to save the mother's life. And he says the youngest voters, ages 18 to 25, are the most pro-life cohort. They were born, he says, when abortion rates were highest, so "many of them feel they're the survivors of a holocaust: one in four of their compatriots are not here." Actually, almost one in three: the abortion rate peaked in 1983 at 30.4 percent.
Kansas politics can be as turbulent as the tornado that swept Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz. The state was born in bloodshed, in the 1850s violence over slavery that produced John Brown and the Civil War. In 1992, Kansas cast 27 percent of its presidential vote for Ross Perot, his fourth-best state percentage.
Liberals have decided what is the matter with Kansas, the archetypal red state: Kansans are insufficiently self-interested and materialistic. Instead of voting on economic issues (and therefore, liberals assume, voting Democratic), they allow themselves to be distracted by social issues--abortion, the coarsening of the culture, etc. Today some Kansans are at daggers drawn with one another over Darwin, debating state standards for teaching about evolution.
Brownback, however, has a mellow demeanor and mellifluous voice--he briefly was a broadcaster--that softens his presentation of his social conservatism, which has a foreign-policy dimension involving support for human rights--especially opposing genocide in Darfur, and sex trafficking--and support for Israel.
Iowa feels like Kansas to him. Social conservatives are a minority of New Hampshire Republicans, but if one candidate in a crowded primary field gets most of them, he can win. South Carolina is very congenial to socially conservative candidates. He says the chairman of Michigan's Republican Party is a social conservative. The race is on, and Brownback, who relishes today's politics because it is "about basic things," is sprinting.