How Brownback Learned to Be a Vocal Conservative

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Sen. Sam Brownback (far right) with former Rep. Joe Scarborough. i

Sam Brownback (right) talks to reporters during his freshman year as a congressman, December 1994. He is pictured with fellow GOP freshman Rep. Joe Scarborough (FL). Both men were swept into office during the 1994 Republican revolution. (Scarborough is now a host for MSNBC.) Kathleen R. Beall/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kathleen R. Beall/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Sen. Sam Brownback (far right) with former Rep. Joe Scarborough.

Sam Brownback (right) talks to reporters during his freshman year as a congressman, December 1994. He is pictured with fellow GOP freshman Rep. Joe Scarborough (FL). Both men were swept into office during the 1994 Republican revolution. (Scarborough is now a host for MSNBC.)

Kathleen R. Beall/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Read a Profile of Brownback

Read about Sam Brownback's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

At a Glance: Sam Brownback

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is one of the most conservative candidates running for president this year. But when he first ran for Congress in 1994, Brownback was viewed by many in Kansas as a moderate Republican. His opponent in the GOP primary even attacked him for being too liberal.

Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, says that Brownback came into the race as a moderate, modeling himself on the dominant politician in the state, Sen. Bob Dole.

"He presented himself initially as a pretty typical Bob Dole Republican, representing traditional Kansas values — but a very normal range of Midwestern/Plains kind of Republican values," says Loomis, who has taught at the University of Kansas for 28 years.

He says Brownback stressed economic issues and smaller government. Brownback's strong socially conservative views would emerge later.

Challenging Brownback's Conservatism

Bob Bennie ran against Brownback in the GOP primary. Bennie had never run for office before. He took a leave of absence from his job — as an agricultural chemicals salesman for Monsanto — to challenge Brownback for the seat.

"If somebody conservative had been running," Bennie says now, "I wouldn't have gotten into the race."

Bennie and Brownback were running in Kansas' 2nd Congressional District. While the state hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1930, the 2nd District tends to be less conservative and has gone back and forth between the two parties.

Taking a Strong Stance on Abortion

Brownback now is a favorite of the pro-life movement. But back in 1994, the state's largest anti-abortion group, Kansans for Life, endorsed Bennie instead of Brownback.

Brownback says that during that House race, he wasn't as clear as he could have been about his stance on abortion.

"I'd list the votes that I would take on it rather than saying, 'I'm pro-life or I'm pro-choice,'" Brownback says. "I'd just list, 'Here's how I'd vote on key issues as they came up' — which led to some confusion at the time." He quickly adds, "But it was a pro-life position."

Bennie says Brownback was in trouble in the campaign until he clarified his position on abortion.

"If he had stayed the way he was — kind of moderate, kind-of, you know, not really being firmly pro-life — I think we'd have won," Bennie says.

Making Views Loud and Clear

Brownback is now one of the most conservative senators in Washington.

He says he learned during that campaign that being a cautious politician didn't suit him. The GOP primary, he says, made him realize the importance of being upfront and clear about positions, even if the audience disagrees.

"It's certainly a campaign style that I've stuck with since then," Brownback says. "I think there's a real value for the American public. You're not having to guess where this guy stands. If you agree with him, great. If you don't, that's fine, too. But here's where he is and you decide."

If Brownback started that 1994 campaign as a moderate, as some observers say he did, he arrived in Washington as an ardent conservative.

Brownback called for the abolition of the departments of Commerce, Energy, Housing and Education. One of his first moves was to try to sell off a federal office building.

At the time, the Republican Revolution was taking the capital by storm. Brownback worked with the new Republican majority and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but in a moment that illustrated where he viewed himself on the conservative spectrum, he refused to sign the Contract with America.

Democrats were denouncing the contract as way out of the mainstream. But Brownback said it wasn't conservative enough.

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