How Brownback Learned to Be a Vocal Conservative Sam Brownback is perhaps the most conservative presidential candidate this year. But in 1994, he was attacked for being too liberal. That House race taught Brownback, now a vocal anti-abortion voice, to be upfront and clear about his positions.
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How Brownback Learned to Be a Vocal Conservative

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How Brownback Learned to Be a Vocal Conservative

How Brownback Learned to Be a Vocal Conservative

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Just ahead, the mom is a trout but the baby is a salmon. It's a new approach to alternative parenting.

BRAND: First though, we continue our series on the presidential candidates' first campaigns with a look at Republican Sam Brownback. He is the senior senator from Kansas and he's one of the most conservative politicians in the race.

But when he first ran for Congress back in 1994, Sam Brownback was seen by many in Kansas as something of a moderate. His opponent in that Republican primary even attacked him as too liberal.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Sam Brownback's ambition and interest in politics started early. In high school he was the president of the Kansas chapter of the Future Farmers of America. When he got to college, he commonly told people that his career goal was to become president of the United States.

Professor ROBERT LINDERS (Kansas State University): Sam was a very prominent student here at Kansas State University and one of the best-known student politicians on campus.

BEAUBIEN: Bob Linders, a professor of history at Kansas State. He remembers Brownback running aggressively for student body president in the late 1970s.

Prof. LINDERS: Most students respected him if they didn't particularly have great affection for him. Obviously, he was able to appeal to the student body and convinced them to vote for him and he was - Sam was a very bright young man, and it was obvious he was going to do some things politically in his future.

BEAUBIEN: And he did. At the age of 29, Brownback became Kansas's youngest secretary of agriculture. In 1993, he considered running for governor but instead jumped into the race for a vacant congressional seat.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): You know, I spent a lot of time thinking and praying about that and I really wanted to run for governor, but I could just - it was just never I had a peace about it. Never have this peace that yeah, that's the right thing to do.

BEAUBIEN: Brownback is deeply religious. Raised Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 2002. His conversations are populated with quotes from scripture and in an openness that's unusual on the presidential campaign trail. He calls himself a fallen man. Brownback says he's running for president because he wants to change the world, including eliminating abortion.

Sen. BROWNBACK: I do believe that these are children that we're killing, and I think there are two victims here, at least - the child and the mother both.

BEAUBIEN: But back in 1994, in his first run for public office, Brownback was far less confident about his public positions. He was running in Kansas's second congressional district. While the state hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1930, the Second District tends to be less conservative and has gone back and forth between the two parties.

Brownback now is a favorite of the pro-life movement. But back in 1994, the state's largest anti-abortion group, Kansans For Life, didn't endorse him. Brownback himself says he wasn't as clear during that race as he could have been about abortion.

Sen. BROWNBACK: I would list the votes that I would take on it rather than saying I was either pro-life or pro-choice. I would just list, here's how I would vote on these key issues as they would come up, which led to some confusion at the time, but it was a pro-life position.

BEAUBIEN: Bob Bennie, who ran against Brownback in the GOP primary, says Brownback was in trouble in the campaign until he clarified his position on abortion.

Mr. BOB BENNIE: If he'd have stayed the way that he was, kind of moderate, kind of not really being firmly pro-life, I just - I don't - I think we'd have won.

BEAUBIEN: Political scientist Burdett Loomis at the University of Kansas says that Brownback came into the race as a moderate.

Professor BURDETT LOOMIS (University of Kansas): He presented himself initially as a pretty typical Bob Dole Republican, representing traditional Kansas values, which would have focused on the economy, smaller government, a very normal range of Midwestern plains kind of Republican values.

BEAUBIEN: Now Brownback is one of the most conservative senators in Washington. He says he learned during that campaign that being a cautious politician didn't suit him and that GOP primary made him realize the importance of being upfront and clear about your positions, even if your audience disagrees with you.

Sen. BROWNBACK: It certainly a campaign style that I've stuck with since then because I think there's real value in doing that for the American public. You're not having to guess where this guy really is. If you agree with him, great; if you don't, that's fine too. But here's where he is and you decide.

BEAUBIEN: If Brownback started the 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. At the time, the Republican Revolution was taking the Capitol by a 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.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.

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