Ground Zero for the Christian Right’s Rise
Frahm was serving as lieutenant governor in 1996 when Bob Dole, who had fallen far behind Bill Clinton in the polls, sought to energize his campaign by resigning from the Senate and making an all-or-nothing bet on the November election. The state’s governor, a pro-choice moderate named Bill Graves, tapped Frahm, a fellow moderate and political up-and-comer, to replace him. In the Senate, Frahm joined fellow Kansas Nancy Landon Kassebaum, another pro-choice moderate.
Together, Frahm, Kassebaum, Graves and even Dole (the consummate Washington dealmaker who teamed up with George McGovern to save the food stamp program) embodied the state’s long tradition of practical, pragmatic Republican leadership. But the political mobilization of evangelical Christians that had begun in the late 1970s was rapidly changing the make-up of the GOP, filling the party’s grassroots ranks with voters who were hostile to government, staunchly anti-tax, and deeply interested in cultural issues like abortion, homosexuality and school prayer.
In Kansas, the Christian right’s forces had been steadily building strength in local elections, fighting the GOP’s pragmatists and pushing the party to the right. To them, Frahm’s appointment amounted to a crime against conservatism, and they determined to fight her in a primary. There was never any doubt who would lead them: Sam Brownback, an ambitious and outspoken evangelical congressman who’d been elected in the Republican revolution of 1994. Brownback announced his candidacy immediately, and an August showdown between the state GOP’s two dominant camps was set.
In the initial polls, Frahm led, but this was the race that Brownback and his crowd had been waiting for. Day after day, he blasted her as a symbol of the compromising, deal-making and general ideological heresy that had fueled the Christian right’s revolt against Frahm’s wing of the party. It was a battle, Brownback’s campaign manager said, of “idea-based Republicans vs. status-based Republicans - people who were Republicans because their daddies were. Rockefeller Republicans.”
Frahm portrayed her opponent as a reckless ideologue, and enormous polling gap emerged between Christian conservatives and non-Christian conservatives. It was a numbers game Brownback couldn’t lose, and the primary wasn’t even close. He went on to win the November election with ease, and Frahm returned to her home state, where she now runs the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees.
In the 16 years since that race, Frahm said, the plight of her wing of the GOP in Kansas has only grown worse. Graves left office 1998, Kassebaum retired after the ‘96 election, and Dole, now 88 and living in Washington, has been out of politics since his ‘96 defeat. Meanwhile, the Brownback wing has cemented its control of the party throughout the state, save for a few seats in the state Senate - which, Frahm noted, are being targeted in primaries this year.