GOP Moderates Poised for a Resurgence in Kansas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 1998; Page A08
OVERLAND PARK, Kan.It was the Republican establishment's equivalent of a gathering of good old boys.
Gov. Bill Graves, the well-born son of a truck company owner, was meeting with the partners of Lathrop and Gage, a prosperous law firm. Most of the 21 men in the 10th floor conference room were on a first-name basis with the governor, so the session was more an election status report laced with gentle kidding than a campaign appearance.
As the meeting came to a close, and almost all the firm's lawyers had left the conference room, the session abruptly veered off in a direction disconcerting and unexpected for the governor and his friends at Lathrop and Gage.
After waiting quietly on the sidelines, Susan Schlacks, a legal secretary, approached Graves. She wanted to look him in the eye while she told him why she could not vote for him in the Aug. 4 gubernatorial primary. Abortion, she said, is the taking of a human life, an unforgivable act that government can in no way condone.
Graves sought to address her concerns, noting that he had signed a bill banning a controversial late-term abortion. "I support exactly what you support, a ban on partial-birth abortions, and that is why my signature is on that bill."
Schlacks knew Graves supports abortion rights and was not satisfied with his response. She went back to her word processor and typed out a statement of her views for a reporter: "Abortion is a criminal action against a human life, regardless of the age of the embryo. It is the taking of a human being and for that reason I would not vote for Mr. Graves or any candidate who espoused abortion."
The confrontation with Schlacks reflected the division within the party that Kansas Republicans have been wrestling with for years. Now the popular governor, one of the last of the state's moderates, faces an unprecedented challenge from his own right flank. But while this challenge has produced some awkward moments, such as this one with Schlacks, the conservative assault on Graves could end up giving the governor just what he wants: a reelection mandate affirming Graves's brand of traditional pro-business, socially moderate Republicanism.
Tuesday's GOP primary here is shaping up as a blow to the Christian right in a state where religious conservatives have demonstrated unparalleled ability to take over the Republican Party apparatus and win offices up and down the ticket from precinct committee to U.S. Senate.
Graves's primary challenger is David Miller, an antiabortion conservative renegade who rose from chairman of the Kansas Christian Coalition to become chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. He resigned his post to take on Graves.
Graves and Miller share the same party label, but their disdain for each other is almost visible when they stand on stage together. Their ideological differences are as deep as their class differences: Graves moves easily in the world of investment bankers, stock brokers and corporate executives; Miller runs a small-town insurance agency in Eudora, Kan., and is driven to campaign events by neighbor Bud Elliot, who was downsized from his previous job.
Graves, Miller said, "has displayed clear hostility to the conservative Republican agenda." At a time when the country is sinking deeper into moral decay, Miller says, Graves's "attitude seems to be one mostly of indifference."
"David passionately believes I am the wrong man for the job, and I passionately believe he is the wrong man for the job," Graves said in an interview. "It's kind of like an adult king of the mountain."
Although far ahead in the polls, Graves is determined to crush Miller in the primary, and with that victory to defeat the movement Miller has led. Graves, who is running harsh negative ads against Miller, said: "It is fair to characterize this as a defining moment for the party. . . . The pendulum is quivering at the top, and it appears this election will let it fall in one direction or the other."
Miller is a general in the religious right movement within a Kansas Republican Party once dominated by such moderates as former senators Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Robert J. Dole. Grass-roots conservative activists, many of them trained by Miller, took over the party in 1994, and over the objections of Graves, Kassebaum Baker and Dole, the activists voted to make Miller state party chairman.
Now, there are few Kansas political activists of any ideological stripe who believe Miller can win Tuesday. His campaign has been plagued by repeated missteps. For example, after putting off the announcement of his tax plan at least three times, Miller released the program on the same day of the first campaign debate, effectively stepping on his own story, guaranteeing virtually no media coverage of a centerpiece of his bid.
The Graves-Miller contest has helped inspire Republican moderates to make a serious bid to regain control of the party in hundreds of battles for precinct committee posts in each of the state's four congressional districts. Moderates, who control only one of the districts, are favored to gain control of at least one more, the Topeka-based 2nd District, and have long-shot chances of winning another.
"Shawnee County [which dominates the 2nd District] may be in trouble," acknowledged Rene Armbuster, the antiabortion, conservative county chair.
In Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita and is a bastion of abortion foes, Mark Gietzen, who is organizing conservative forces in the 4th District battle for the precinct committee, said this year his side was caught "asleep at the switch." He said that "the pro-choice side basically did what we did in 1994, operating under the radar screen."
Even though the governor appears headed toward reelection, right-leaning Kansans still can claim some victories in this contest.
Graves, sensitive to the potential danger of a religious right challenge, took steps to try to keep peace with conservatives, including signing a ban on the late-term procedure called "partial-birth abortion" by its critics, as well as legislation requiring women considering abortions to receive advance information.
In addition, he signed a bill barring official recognition of same-sex marriage, and he has cut taxes by larger amounts than he would have preferred.
Kansas is being governed in a conservative fashion, commented Richard Nadler, a talk show host and gadfly of the right. "Unfortunately," he added, "it's being run by Bill Graves."
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