Topeka — Sen. Sam Brownback's presidential hopes could put moderate Kansas Republicans who don't like his positions on social issues in an awkward position.
Candidates are supposed to enjoy the unquestioned backing of their parties in their home states for the obvious benefits it could bring to the state. In 1996, when Bob Dole was the GOP nominee, there seemed no question from the beginning that he would enjoy the support of any Kansas Republican of any prominence.
However, there are questions about whether Brownback can say the same.
Not only does his strong opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research bother moderates, but many believe he has actively helped push the state GOP to the right.
"Senator Brownback has got to reach out to traditional Republicans, and he doesn't seem too eager to do that," Ryan Wright, executive director of the moderate Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, said Monday. "That leaves their votes up for grabs."
Brownback kicked off his GOP presidential campaign Saturday, entering a field that could include as many as 10 contenders, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While McCain, Giuliani and Romney all are better known nationally, Brownback enjoys solid support among conservative Christians.
In his announcement, Brownback declared, "I am a conservative and I'm proud of being a conservative." He spoke about promoting a "culture of life" and preserving marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
But his speech also included broader themes, including a call for the United States to fight for the downtrodden. He also said the nation is too divided and, "We need reconciliation."
After his remarks, Brownback expressed confidence that his positions reflect most Republicans' views, despite 2006 elections that gave Democrats control of Congress. He said most Americans are "center-right" in their politics.
"This last election was about Iraq and corruption," he said. "It isn't about basic directions as far as the philosophy of the country."
House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, a fellow conservative, said Brownback has moved toward the center. He cited Brownback's support for an eventual path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
"I've heard several comments from people that Brownback seems to not have the same agenda that he's had in the past," said Neufeld, R-Ingalls. "He's starting to broaden his agenda."
Several prominent moderate Republicans were noncommittal Monday about Brownback's candidacy.
"There's a lot of candidates who will be running for president. This is early," said Rep. Joann Pottorff, R-Wichita. "No one tells me how I vote on anything. I would look at the candidates."
Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said: "I don't feel any pressure or for that matter any expectation to automatically support somebody just because of the political party they belong to."
But Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said if Brownback proves a viable candidate, moderates will feel pressure to support him.
"Certainly, Eisenhower, when he was president, did a lot for Kansas," Sloan said. "If Bob Dole had been president, he would have done even more than he did as the Senate majority leader and such. There's always a vested interest for Kansans to support the hometown boy or girl."
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist, said moderates were likely to avoid criticizing Brownback unless he appears to have a chance of winning the nomination. Criticism of Brownback in Kansas "plays terribly" to a national audience, he said.
"I think the message would not necessarily be, 'You need to get behind Sam,' but, 'Don't bad-mouth him,"' Beatty said.