It's a Tuesday in mid-October 2005, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback is chairing a meeting of a little-known but highly influential Senate group called the Values Action Team (VAT). Think of it as a PTA board for the vast right-wing conspiracy: The Concerned Women for America has a standing invitation, as do the Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Right to Life Committee. The activists sit around a conference table in the Capitol building and plot strategy on matters like broadcast decency, Internet gambling, and anti-abortion legislation.
Typically, the group's weekly meetings draw 50 to 75 conservative activists. Today, however, there are well over 100 people crowded into the stately room. It's been two weeks since George W. Bush named Harriet Miers to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, and the nomination has flagged. So much so that, in the days before this meeting, the White House has readied plans for a renewed push. Brownback has long stated his opposition to Miers, but, as a gesture of goodwill, he's invited former Senator Dan Coats, Miers's steward on the Hill, to appear before the group. The activists are, if anything, even less generous than Brownback. Many have turned up just to watch the poor man squirm.
Coats makes the case for Miers as best he can: She was a managing partner of a big Texas firm. She'll be a reliable vote for the things you believe in. Then someone pipes up with an ominously simple question: Why did the president nominate Miers in the first place? Coats pauses for a moment before allowing, "I think neither the White House nor the members of the Senate wanted to make a nomination that would start a culture war." Wrong answer! "Everyone in that room, they are the culture war," Manny Miranda, one of the conservatives at the meeting, recalls thinking. The activists are furious. Several fume that Coats doesn't understand how judicial fights have changed in the years since he left the Hill.
Minutes pass before Brownback invokes an implicit slaughter rule."Well, Dan, you've got some good feedback you can take back to the White House for when they choose their next nominee," he says.Though he is painstakingly polite, it appears he has just pronounced the Miers nomination dead. The activists look at one another and scratch their heads. Can he really do that? Belatedly, Brownback picks up on the implication of his statement and offers a qualification: "Of course, I don't mean that's going to happen anytime soon."
Of all the GOP presidential contenders who could claim to have benefited from the recent midterm elections, Brownback may be the one for whom it is most true. For years, the social conservatives who brought down Miers have been having a fierce intramural debate on the merits of pragmatism versus purity. In the run-up to 2000,they resolved that debate in favor of the former, and the movement threw its support behind George W. Bush over conservative long shots like John Ashcroft and Gary Bauer. But, now, conservatives appear to have the worst of both worlds: Six years of disappointments on issues like abortion and gay marriage have resulted in a midterm rout and a lame-duck presidency. Purity is looking more attractive by the day.
All the more so when you consider that the early GOP front-runner is John McCain, a man who still makes some social conservatives sputter with rage. If present trends continue and the Republican establishment embraces McCain, conservatives could choose to rally around a more acceptable alternative—that is, if they can find one. Lame-duck Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has already pulled the plug on his presidential ambitions. As of January, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and Virginia's George Allen are both ex-senators. And, while Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may have escaped the midterm fallout, he is Mormon—a religion many evangelical Christians regard as a cult.
Brownback, by contrast, is closing in on a decade as the leading social conservative in the U.S. Senate. He has impeccable credentials on issues like judges, abortion, and gay marriage. (And, for that matter, any combination of the three: He has threatened to hold up the nomination of a Michigan judge because she once attended a lesbian commitment ceremony.) And Brownback's leadership of the VAT gives him extraordinary day-to-day influence over the Senate's social conservative agenda.
There are crasser considerations, too. Brownback was an evangelical Christian before he converted to Catholicism. Iowa has large populations of both. Brownback's home in Topeka is a four-hour drive from Des Moines, giving him as close to a natural foothold in the state as any GOP contender will have. And, as a long-serving state agriculture secretary and former Future Farmers of America official, Brownback is as fluent in the language of ethanol subsidies and biodiesel production as any politician reared outside Iowa. Put this together, and you have a guy who could theoretically take one of the top two spots in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. With the Internet's track record of making juggernauts out of grassroots icons, even a third-place finish could give Brownback an E-Z Pass lane straight through to the final stages of the race. If everything breaks right, and social conservatives are particularly aggrieved over their party's standard bearer, Brownback could end up on the national ticket.
Brownback, in other words, is on the brink. He is savvy. He is righteous. He is committed. He would appear to have been born for this moment in politics. But looks can be deceiving, because birth is not at all how Brownback came by his place in the conservative cosmos. As recently as 1994, the year of his first campaign for Congress, Brownback was a member in good standing of the moderate Republican establishment. But, by the time he arrived in Congress that fall, he was emitting so much anti-government zeal he gave Newt Gingrich the willies. Within two years, Brownback had another epiphany, from which he emerged as a crusader for Christian causes.
Which raises a question for conservatives mulling a Brownback candidacy: Has the Kansas senator been finding himself? Or has he been finding himself a way to run for president?
In mid-October, I trailed Brownback through the Republican precincts of northwestern Iowa. The first stop was an unexpectedly frou-frou bistro in a town called Spirit Lake, where some 50 locals showed up for partisan red meat. What they got was more like mixed greens. Brownback opened with a riff about growing up in the "suburbs" of tiny Parker, Kansas, where his parents still mind a 1,400-acre farm. It took him several minutes to even mention Nancy Pelosi.When he finally did, he felt compelled to stipulate that "she represents her district well."
All in all, it sounded a lot like the way I imagine the young Sam Brownback sounded: humble, warm, gracious—and moderate. My mind drifted to a story I'd heard from Tim Golba, a former president of Kansans for Life, who'd met with Brownback in 1994 to discuss a possible primary endorsement. According to Golba, it quickly became clear that there was little to discuss. Brownback was not only unfamiliar with the anti-abortion lexicon, he had a habit of dropping the hints used by politicians on the other side. "I think you'll find me more in line with the view of Nancy Kassebaum," he told Golba, who still grumbles at the mention of the famously moderate Kansas senator.
For the most part, though, it's not the continuity between the young Brownback and today's Brownback that is striking: It's the change. Because the longer Brownback goes on, the more you sense a distinct lack of passion for standard Iowa fare like agriculture policy or the budget. Compared with the previous speaker, local Congressman Steve King, he's not even worked up about Iraq. What Sam Brownback clearly wants to talk about—what he thinks people need to know about—are the issues you might store in a mental file called "Judgment Day." The Judgment Day file begins with standard culture-war causes like gay marriage and abortion. But it is a sprawling file, and, before long, it sprawls to such far-flung locales as Sudan and the Congo, where Brownback wants to stop genocide and human trafficking. "We're a great nation," Brownback says. His voice is still composed, but now there's a firmness that wasn't there before. "And I believe, in my heart, that for our greatness to continue, our goodness must continue."
It is a long journey, this trip from heartland moderate to Judgment Day conservative. The crowd at Spirit Lake isn't entirely sure what to make of it. The self-deprecating comments, they can laugh at.The partisan comments, they can cheer. But this culture-war stuff.This Africa stuff. ... I am seated next to a group of local businessmen, including two with name tags that read bank midwest. A few minutes ago, they were sporting Chamber of Commerce grins and clapping Chamber of Commerce claps. Now they just stare ahead, blankly.
There is a final thing you notice about Sam Brownback these days. The early accounts all depict a young man in a hurry. When he began high school, Brownback had—not quite a speech impediment, but a tendency to garble his words. He spent his afternoons working with a teacher named Marvin Creager until the tic had surrendered to his will. During his senior year, Brownback won a standing ovation at the state Future Farmers of America convention, where the delegates made him their president. When he applied for an internship at the local radio station in college, the station's manager, Ralph Titus, asked whether Brownback planned to go into broadcasting. "He said,`No, I'm going to be president of the United States,'" recalls Titus. "I laughed. He did not."
It was a pattern that continued throughout early adulthood. "You always got the impression he was studying, prepping," says Will Gunn, who met Brownback when they were White House Fellows in the early '90s. The day Bob Dole resigned his Senate seat in 1996, a seat Brownback would soon claim, the freshman congressman strode into the chamber and schmoozed his future colleagues so extravagantly that the chamber had to be gaveled to order.
But, when Brownback sidles up to me and introduces himself after his remarks, what strikes me most is his calm. Truth be told, it is a little unsettling. There are too many silences, and the silences are too long. They goad you into filling them with small eruptions of chatter. I am, in fact, halfway through a mini-autobiography when Brownback looks down. My Israeli first name has piqued his interest, and he is taking a minute to reflect. Brownback is wearing a tweedy blazer and gray-green khakis. There is no tie around his neck, and his shoes evoke a recent trip to the Timberland outlet store. From a distance, I had mostly noticed his dark hair and trim, athletic build. This makes it all the more jarring to survey the deep grooves in his face.
When Brownback looks up, his hazel eyes have narrowed. He appears tobe staring simultaneously at me and 30 feet behind me, if such a thing is possible. "It's a shame that country has always got to defend itself like that," he finally says, so softly I can barely hear him. Judgment Day may be here sooner than you think.
I have come to Manhattan, Kansas, to figure out how Sam Brownback took the critical first step from moderate to conservative, and I feel myself getting close when Dixie Roberts walks into a cafe and extends her hand. Roberts is a petite grandmother with frizzy black hair, stiletto heels, and bright pink lipstick. For years, she has enjoyed unofficial status in this university town as a kind of campus Mama. She put two sons through Kansas State and has amassed enough of her own credits to qualify as a junior. "Political science," she tells me.
Roberts has known Brownback since his 1978 term as student body president, when he told the Kansas State Collegian that his goals included a local mass transit system and a legislative network to convey students' concerns directly to state lawmakers. After law school at the University of Kansas, Brownback moved back to Manhattan to work at a small but politically connected firm, a job that eventually led to his appointment as state agriculturalsecretary. Roberts still gets wistful for the Brownback of this vintage. He was a mainline Protestant in those days, and when Brownback's current worldview comes up in our conversation, she scoffs slightly, then worries she's committed a faux pas: "You don't believe in that stuff, do you?"
When Brownback ran for Congress in 1994, Roberts held a seat in his kitchen cabinet. But, shortly after his primary victory, Roberts walked away and promised herself she wouldn't be back. Now she's offered to drive me to the place where it first dawned on her that Brownback had changed.
Ten minutes later, we've parked in front of the Little Apple Brewery, a local dive with a wood facade and a green awning. Roberts marches me back to an enclosed room toward the rear of the establishment. With the exception of the Southwestern decor, the room is mostly as Roberts remembers it. The Brownback campaign had called a meeting to thank supporters and begin planning for the general election. Brownback himself wasn't in attendance, but his campaign chairman, a former K-State dean named C. Clyde Jones, was there, as were other advisers.
Roberts was already seated when she noticed about a dozen of them enter the room—a group of local anti-abortion activists she'd never seen around the campaign. "It was like an army had come in,"she says. "They just took over the meeting." It took all the composure Roberts could muster not to head straight for the door.She sat through the entire event feeling like the wind had been knocked out of her. When she got home, she called C. Clyde to tell him she was out.
To understand what happened, you have to start with Brownback's challenger in the GOP primary, a Manhattan chemical salesman named Bob Bennie. Everything you knew about Bennie told you his campaign would be a joke. He'd never run for office in his life. No one in Manhattan—much less the rest of the district—had ever heard of him. And he had no money to speak of. Just about the only thing Bennie had going for him was the early tremors of a political earthquake.
Up until 1991, Kansans for Life (KFL) had mostly restricted its activism to "citizen lobbying": They would show up in Topeka and buttonhole their representatives. But, despite the group's growing strength, passing legislation proved futile. "The leadership would always make promises, and then nothing happened," recalls Golba,the organization's then-president. That's when Golba realized it would be easier to change the politicians than to change the policies. He hired a savvy former legislator named David Miller to organize his ground troops and placed moderate Republicans in his crosshairs. The plan succeeded beyond all expectations. In 1992, KFL stunned the local political establishment by electing ten conservative representatives. One of the new state reps, a carpet-layer named Jene Vickrey, upset the speaker of the Kansas House.
Brownback's opponent, Bennie, was about as pro-life as you could get without earning yourself a restraining order. He had no trouble winning the KFL endorsement. This, in turn, formed the backbone of his campaign strategy. In every tiny Kansas town Bennie rolled into, dozens of KFL activists would turn up: 25 people in Erie(population 1,200); 50 in Burlington (population 2,700)—all of them to see a no-name with no chance of winning. After Bennie charged through his stump speech, the activists would fan out along the local streets, distributing literature and planting yard signs. It was like having a political operation thousands of workers strong.
From Brownback's perspective, it was also a nightmare. Before the congressional race, Brownback had never really had to justify his abortion views. Now he was getting an earful practically every time he stumped for a vote. There were days when it looked like the whole thing might slip away.
Then, as primary day approached, Bennie noticed a change in his opponent's language. Brownback never used to mention abortion on the campaign trail. Now he was publicly pronouncing himself an abortion opponent. When primary day rolled around in early August, Bennie ran up an impressive 36 percent of the vote to Brownback's 48. But he was still furious, believing Brownback had swiped the nomination by aping his positions. "I knew how I stood," he told me. "I didn't know how he stood."
It was a fair question. Four days before the vote, the local Manhattan Mercury had endorsed Brownback as a "moderate" who "displays a solid grasp of complex issues such as health care and foreign trade." The paper's editor-in-chief had known Brownback for years.
The Gingrich Revolution swept 73 new Republicans into office in November 1994, and being a freshman felt like standing at the center of the universe. Foreign leaders inquired about addressing the new class. K Street eminences turned up to offer advice.
Ideologically, Brownback was typical of his new colleagues. He strongly opposed abortion and had an abiding faith in God. But, most of all, he felt that big government in Washington was out of control. The idea of reining it in made him too excited to sleep.
Like any revolutionary junta—or, for that matter, any high school class—the freshmen needed a president. Brownback threw himself into the race. Between December, when the freshmen showed up for orientation, and the day of the vote in February, the field narrowed to two candidates: Brownback and a mild-mannered Mississippian named Roger Wicker. Wicker eked out a narrow victory largely because he didn't appear to be angling for the job. This forced Brownback to fall back on plan B. He'd been part of an informal group called the New Federalists since arriving in Washington. Now he installed himself as their leader.
Under Brownback, the New Federalists became a vanguard of about 25 House members, the purest of the pure. They churned out bills abolishing four Cabinet departments. They demanded huge cuts in congressional staff. They clamored for term limits and tossed around constitutional amendments the way most people edit a grocery list. Whatever it took to strip power from Washington, the New Federalists were prepared to do it.
The Cabinet departments never did get shuttered. Nor did the other items on the New Federalist agenda gain much traction. Instead, Brownback and his colleagues became the House's self-appointed enforcers. When, for example, the Clinton administration balked at the GOP's proposed spending and tax cuts, the New Federalists agitated for a shutdown. After the shutdown proved a P.R. fiasco,and the House leadership caved, Brownback was disappointed but disillusioned. Then-Florida Representative Joe Scarborough remembers Brownback consoling him on the House floor in early 1996: "Sam came up and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, `Don't worry, Joe. Even Rome wasn't burnt in a day.'"
That summer, Brownback challenged Sheila Frahm for the Republican nomination for Senate. Frahm was the lieutenant governor of Kansas and the epitome of moderate Republicanism. The state's governor was about to install her in the seat Dole had vacated to run for president when Brownback announced his candidacy. On the airwaves, Brownback attacked Frahm as a shiftless tax-raiser. At the grassroots level, he deployed the boundless energy of the anti-abortion movement. The old divide in Kansas politics had been geographic: the rural hinterlands versus a relatively populous enclave in the northeast. Frahm hailed from a prominent farming family in western Kansas, and--thanks to her years as a legislator in Topeka—she seemed known enough in the northeast to limit Brownback's native-son advantage. "I remember we were in Topeka when the [local] results came in. He had won, but I thought he hadn't won by enough," recalls Trent Ledoux, a former Frahm adviser. But the old geographic model had been obliterated. Brownback ran up huge margins across most of the state and then sailed to victory in the general.
Despite the triumph, Brownback was privately reeling. In August 1995, he'd noticed a small lump on his torso. The tumor was treatable with surgery, but cancer is cancer, and it has a way of focusing the mind. Brownback was participating in a weekly evangelical prayer group in Washington. But his newfound religiosity didn't calm his nerves; it only agitated them. Brownback couldn't stop wondering what he would have had to show for his life if this hadn't been a false alarm.
When Brownback arrived in the Senate, he sought a meeting with Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian. Officially, Colson ran the Prison Fellowship Ministries, an evangelical group that ministered to prisoners. Unofficially, he was the dean of the growing compassionate conservative movement. Brownback told Colson he wanted to put the "positive side" of his Christian faith to work in the Senate. The two men talked at length about how that might happen. Eventually, Colson mentioned William Wilberforce, the devoutly Christian English parliamentarian who had spearheaded the country's anti-slavery movement during the late eighteenth century. Colson encouraged Brownback to adopt Wilberforce as his model of Christian praxis.
Brownback began to read. Religiously. He devoured biographies of Wilberforce. Aides noticed how the boss would carry a copy of C.S.Lewis's Screwtape Letters everywhere he traveled. He delved into Daniel Patrick Moynihan's writings on politics and culture. People who knew Brownback during this time talk of metaphysical change."I've had a sense that his faith has gotten stronger every year he's been in Congress," says former Democratic Representative Tony Hall, who regularly prayed with Brownback. Colson describes it as a"spiritual maturing."
The coup de grace came later that year. At the time, Brownback was serving as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees Washington,D.C. David Kensinger, Brownback's longtime campaign manager and political Svengali, remembers when he and the senator noticed that the number of abortions in the District consistently rivaled the number of live births and that the vast majority of these mothers were unmarried. A little algebra revealed that only one in every six pregnancies ended with a married woman bringing a child to term. It was a jaw-dropping statistic. "You can do the flat tax, you can do school choice," says Kensinger. "But until you fix that, you're not going to fix what's wrong with D.C."
Brownback was done being a Gingrich Revolutionary. He sat down with Paul Ryan, his then-chief of staff, and told him as much. "It's one thing to introduce legislation to cut taxes, like 50 other members of the Senate. It's another thing to make a material difference in this country, or in Africa," says Ryan. "No one else was doing this, fighting the culture war. ... That's the calculation he made."
Topeka Bible Church (TBC) occupies a multi-level, gray stone building in a racially mixed neighborhood of urban Topeka. Around the corner is a pair of apartment complexes that screams service-economy transience. A couple blocks away, a sign advertises Discount Smokes and Convenience Store.
When I ask Jim Congdon, the church's pastor, why TBC never relocated to the exurbs, he seems wearied by the question. Congdon is a trim, bearded man in his fifties, with cheeks you could store acorns in. He tells me he has considered moving out to the western edge of town, where much of his congregation now lives. But, each time, the tug of the old neighborhood wins out. "I just feel like it's good for us to stay here. I think that helps our congregation be more diverse," he says. Tomorrow, Congdon and 50 TBC volunteers will spend the day painting and mulching a nearby elementary school.
Sitting in Congdon's cluttered office, listening to his reflections on race and urban blight, you want to tell your secular friends that this whole culture-war thing is a huge misunderstanding. We can all go home now. But there is a sharper edge to Congdon's evangelicalism, and it can creep up on you in an instant.
Congdon's Sunday sermon, for example, is a meditation on the proper mindset for a Christian when Christ descends from heaven. This turns out to be highly relevant, because the current turbulence in the Middle East signifies that the end times are near. "For the first time in 40 years, an Israeli prime minister is worried about being annihilated," Congdon observes. One of the bigger divides among evangelicals is between pre- and post-millennialists. The post-millennialists believe Christ will only return after peace reigns on Earth. The pre-millennialists believe the apocalypse will usher in the messiah's return. Congdon, it turns out, is a pre-millennialist with an itchy trigger finger.
Once the service ends, I spot Brownback chatting up a woman manning a voter registration booth in the lobby. He's wearing a blue knit sweater and looking better rested than he did in Iowa. He invites me to join him at a reception for the outgoing youth pastor, and we make friendly banter while his two adopted children crawl all over him. From time to time I lose sight of eight-year-old Mark, only to see a small pair of legs emerge from between Brownback's arm and waist, at which point the senator gets to work re-tying a pair of white "Shaq" high-tops. (There are five Brownback children in all.)
After about ten minutes, a tallish woman in a sherbet-green outfit buttonholes Brownback, husband in tow. The woman gushes about how she prays for him every day and how lucky Kansans are to have a senator like him. She is the kind of excitable busybody you expect to find in every congregation, a big vacuum cleaner of opinions who repackages them as her own. Now she's off on a rant about how the press opposes President Bush because he's a Republican and a Christian. Before long, she's talking about Iraq, then the first Gulf war, then on to a lament about the attention span of our "microwave society." Finally it's back to the liberal media."Well," Brownback says consolingly, "they have the newspapers and TV, but we have radio." The woman is, if not exactly appeased, at least out of material. "That's all I listen to is radio," she says.
As she's leaving, Brownback turns to me and explains his theory of red-state/blue-state relations. People who live in Red America know plenty about Blue America. They often work in large cities, or they travel to them on vacation, or they hear about them through popular culture. But the opposite is almost never true. "If they"—the people in Blue America—"travel at all," Brownback says, "they go abroad, like to Europe or Tokyo." I can't say for sure, but I think he is paying me a compliment.
In 2001, Brownback led a Senate delegation to the Vatican to award the Pope a Congressional Gold Medal. The group was bipartisan—in addition to Brownback, Catholic Republicans like Rick Santorum and Bob Smith of New Hampshire came along, as did Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. The highlight of the trip was the Pope's private receiving line. Brownback would introduce each senator to John Paul II, and the three would chat privately for a few minutes. When it was Smith's turn, Brownback turned to the Pope and said, "This is Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire. He's the leading pro-life advocate in the U.S. Senate." Smith then returned the favor. "The man sitting next to you has done more than his fair share," he said. Brownback was beaming.
Brownback's conversion the following year made him both a Catholic and a member of the rarefied flock of John McCloskey, priest to Washington's conservative establishment. McCloskey had previously converted conservative journalists Bob Novak and Larry Kudlow, and Brownback's "sponsor" was his fellow senator, Santorum. As with most secret societies, the accounts of Brownback's admission to this circle are remarkably thin. No one describes it as much more than a "quiet ceremony" officiated by McCloskey in a K Street chapel.
Even those closest to Brownback remain in the dark on the matter. When I asked Kensinger the reason his longtime boss converted, he told me simply, "I don't know." Will Gunn, a retired Air Force colonel who had met Brownback in the early '90s, was even more mystified. On Memorial Day weekend in 2002, Gunn had traveled to Brownback's home in Topeka for a reunion of their White House Fellows class. It turned out to be an extremely intimate gathering. All of the fellows had gone on to jobs with unrelenting schedules, and so, of the twelve alumni, only three could make the trip. Gunn arrived to find the senator and his wife, Mary, disarmingly down to earth. For dinner, the guests caught fish out of a backyard pond,which Brownback dutifully cleaned. By day, the families played pickup basketball; by night, they went dancing at a local honky-tonk club. On Sunday morning, Gunn, who is also an evangelical Christian, attended church with the Brownbacks.
Gunn and Brownback have been close ever since. They get together every two or three months to have dinner and talk about their obligations as fathers and believers and the role of Jesus Christ in their lives. Brownback once told Gunn he's in Washington because he believes the Lord wants him to be there. And yet, amazingly, Gunn says he didn't know about Brownback's conversion until he read about it in the newspaper several years later.
What we do know is that Brownback had taken a passing interest in Catholicism as early as 1997, when he teamed up with Ted Kennedy to arrange a Congressional Gold Medal for Mother Teresa. In the process, he'd begun reading up on Catholic teaching, including the writings of John Paul II. Brownback is what you might call a God geek. He is endlessly fascinated by all things religious. "If it's a spiritual thing, he loves it," says Congdon, Brownback's pastor at TBC, where he still attends service after Mass most Sundays. Not surprisingly, Brownback's crash course on Catholicism seemed to stick with him. "It started working in the background," Kensinger speculates. "If these people are who they are, and I want to have a soul more like theirs, what helped them to become more like they are?"
Things proceeded in this vein for years. Paul Ryan, now a representative from Wisconsin, served as Brownback's chief of staff through his early days in the Senate. Long after he left the job, Ryan, who is Catholic, would periodically get calls from his former boss. The two men would talk about Catholic doctrine and the intellectual foundations of Catholicism. Over time, these musings began to fill out the gaps in Brownback's religious worldview. "I just think he found an articulation of the Christian faith in the Catholic tradition that he felt was more fully developed," says Brownback's friend Deal Hudson, a fellow convert and former Catholic outreach adviser to the Bush White House.
There are less flattering explanations as well. Brownback had always had a weakness for elite societies. He applied twice to be a White House Fellow before being admitted. When he got to Congress, Rolling Stone has reported, he sought admission to a small "cell" overseen by "The Fellowship," an organization of evangelical elites. Catholicism in general, and McCloskey's flock in particular, may have been just another upscale fraternity to pledge.
Nor is it easy to ignore how Brownback's conversion has given him a beachhead in each of the two most powerful communities on the religious right. Even Congdon concedes there was some skepticism in the pews of TBC when news of the conversion made the rounds. "I fielded a lot of questions from suspicious people who thought that was just a political conversion," he says.
A generation ago, being Catholic would have been a clear liability in certain evangelical quarters. But, over the last 20 years,conservative Catholic and evangelical groups have forged a semi-official alliance, evocatively dubbed "co-belligerency," to help advance their shared political agenda. Kensinger says Team Brownback has no idea how the senator's conversion will play among evangelicals, but there's clearly a hope that it will net him the best of both worlds—a candidate who can address each group in its own language.
Political or not, Brownback's path to Catholicism appears to have motivated his broadening interest in human rights. In the years since September 11, Brownback has taken on more or less the entire Republican Party in a fight to protect the rights of political refugees, not exactly a popular crusade in the middle of the war on terrorism. In recent years, Brownback has even begun a very public reconsideration of his support for the death penalty. At a hearing earlier this year, Brownback solicited testimony from families of victims on both sides of the issue. Afterward, a Kansas City Star reporter asked which stance he found more compelling. Brownback wouldn't say, but he noted how the death penalty supporters looked angry and "hard." "In Christian theology, the burden is on the person who has not forgiven," he said.
Then there is the immigration issue, which is either a colossal political miscalculation or the policy equivalent of Catholic self-flagellation. In 2005, Brownback signed on as a co-sponsor to the relatively moderate Kennedy-McCain bill. The reaction from rank-and-file Republicans has not been kind. Steve Scheffler, the head of a conservative evangelical group in Iowa, told me, "The biggest thing [Brownback would] have to address is why did he vote for that horrendous bill?" Kensinger says Brownback's answer is simple: "The Bible says you will be judged by how you treat the widow, the orphan, the foreign among you. That's the end of it." He believes the key is how Brownback manages his position—not the position itself. But Chuck Hurley, a Brownback law school classmate who runs the influential Iowa Family Policy Center, has hinted a shift could be in the works. "I understand he's been doing some consulting about that issue," Hurley told me conspiratorially, citing an upcoming meeting with a local anti-immigration politician.
So just who, exactly, is Sam Brownback? Answering that question is difficult, but it helps to go back to the beginning of his political career and to a woman named Kim Smith. A longtime conservative activist, Smith is the kind of person whose name inspires shifty eyes and labored euphemisms in a small town like Manhattan, Kansas. When I mentioned her to Dixie Roberts, she hemmed and hawed, then told me that Smith's sons "had always been in trouble" and that she found Smith's constant preaching a little tough to take. "Here you are, espousing all these religious views, and someone has a troubled personal life," she sighed, before hastening to add, "we've always been friends."
Smith had been one of Bob Bennie's most loyal supporters during the 1994 GOP primary. She shared his "out there" views on abortion and had derided Brownback as an operator. "Sam, like so many others,was just a `good ole guy' and abortion was a nasty subject you didn't talk about," Smith recently wrote me. Smith seemed to derive a sadistic pleasure from making Brownback sweat. One of her sons worked at a Christian radio station and would receive updates on his public appearances. Smith made a point of dispatching activists to these events to hector him about abortion.
But, by the end of the primary, Brownback had started to generate favorable chatter in Smith's circles. She decided to meet him in person. Smith watched the way Brownback treated his family. She grilled his longtime scheduler about what he was like to work for. And, most important of all, she opened a long, anguished dialogue with him on abortion. Smith told Brownback how, back in the mid-'70s, she had terminated a six-week-old pregnancy. She was 19 and didn't have a high school diploma or marketable skills. She showed up at a Planned Parenthood clinic with dozens of questions, only to be given what she says was a "high-pressure sales job," to which she acceded. "It was the most devastating decision I have ever made," she wrote me.
Brownback was shocked to hear that abortion was so prevalent, that a 14-year-old girl could have an abortion without her parents knowing, and that the procedure was legal up to the minute of birth (which is not, in fact, true). He had never even heard of a technique called partial-birth abortion. After a few weeks of this, Smith got in touch with Golba and the other leaders of the local pro-life movement. She told them that Brownback had become an ally in their cause. She felt so strongly about this, she said, that she was ready to vouch for him personally.
By the time Brownback and Golba met again, it was obvious that he had changed. Brownback had been a mild-mannered Methodist at the outset of the campaign. Now, as a result of his conversations with Smith and Robert Tyson (Brownback's former Sunday school teacher), he had begun to opine on the abortion issue with a religious sense of purpose. "His talk was completely different," says Golba. "We felt an honesty. ... I could tell he knew the issue; he had studied it. We felt that's where his heart was."
A few years later, Brownback's old primary opponent, Bob Bennie, received an invitation to a breakfast in Omaha, Nebraska, featuring a local gubernatorial candidate. A Christian men's organization had sponsored the event, and Bennie—who had since relocated to nearby Lincoln—was just "filling a seat at a table." Then he realized he knew the keynote speaker: Sam Brownback. Brownback's remarks were unusually personal—really more of a testimonial than a speech. He talked largely about the spiritual change he'd undergone during his first congressional campaign. Bennie had been livid over what he'd seen as Brownback's insincere positioning on abortion. But at the breakfast, he told me, it was obvious that "he'd had a change of heart in the way he thought about things." When Brownback finished,Bennie stood off to the side as the other men filed by. Finally the senator turned and recognized him. "Bob," he said, holding out his hand. But Bennie wasn't in a handshaking mood. He walked up to Brownback and the two men embraced.