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What is a Republican?

National | In the heart of Bob Dole country, Republican conservatives take on GOP liberals; the battleground is the governor's mansion, the issue is abortion

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

in Williamsburg, Kan. - Williamsburg is so small that the Jayhawkers Days parade travels the length of downtown-five blocks-and then turns around to travel the length again. There's one drill team, three horse-drawn carts, some fire engines, and one huge, saddled longhorn steer. But even in Williamsburg, longshot gubernatorial candidate David Miller can find supporters. "David Miller!" shouts one chesty Jayhawker from the sidewalk, as Mr. Miller passes by in the bed of a 1952 Ford pickup. "We want a Republican in the governor's house!" And that's the heart of Mr. Miller's run: Kansas has a Republican governor, but Gov. Bill Graves has angered conservatives and sparked a revolt within the party. His spending increases and pro-abortion policies led conservatives to look for a candidate to challenge him in next week's primary; the effective, cheerful state party chairman, Mr. Miller, was the obvious choice. "Kansas is an overwhelmingly Republican state," he says. "It's just a question of what kind of Republicans." Kansas, the home of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, has a deeply divided ruling party. And Mr. Miller, 47, has been at or near the center of that division for years. In the 1980s, he served as a member of the state House of Representatives and first won notice for his fiscal conservatism. In 1986, the state received a huge windfall in tax revenues due to some changes in federal laws. Mr. Miller led the push to send the money back to taxpayers. But even though five of the seven members on the budget committee were Republican, he couldn't get a second on his motion. "These people talked the conservative game," he says. "But they wanted that money for programs." That's when Mr. Miller and other conservatives formed an alliance with Democrats against the moderate Republican leadership. The press dubbed them "Rogue Elephants," and the leadership was infuriated by their reforms. They pushed through some rules changes (though they avoided policy issues), including the number of votes needed to force a roll-call vote-these were measures, Mr. Miller says, designed to "flush out the phonies." Those rules changes helped him win approval for the state's first welfare-reform bill, called Kan-Work, in 1987. Mr. Miller left the state House to run with gubernatorial candidate Nestor Weigand as lieutenant governor; they lost, but not by much (7,000 votes). After that race, Mr. Miller, an insurance agency owner, became head of Kansas for Life in 1991. It was at this post that he was able to begin building a coherent, conservative base within the Republican Party. Four years later, he was elected chairman of the party, over the objections of Sen. Dole and Gov. Graves. The Kansas City Star reported that his 1995 election was "evidence of the growing clout of the GOP's conservative, anti-abortion wing." Mr. Miller smiles at the irony of that statement; the party that was founded on the rights of life and freedom has a "growing" pro-life faction. "The press's response was, 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling,' this is the death of the Republican Party, etc.," he says. "But when the smoke cleared, we [conservatives] had won everything in sight." And in 1996, Mr. Miller helped engineer a Republican sweep of all Kansas congressional and senate seats. "What do I do for fun? Politics," he grins. Dust is rising in the wake of the leased Pontiac. It's Saturday, and Mr. Miller doesn't have a driver today. He's navigating the gravel roads by water towers and wheat fields. When he gets to a blacktop, he checks his speed and eases off the accelerator. "I can just see the article," he grins. "Gubernatorial candidate David Miller was stopped for speeding yesterday, as he traveled in his dark-horse campaign to unseat popular Gov. Bill Graves. At this time, it is still unknown why he wants to unseat the governor, who is quite popular." Gov. Bill Graves is, in fact, popular. His approval ratings stay in the high 70s and low 80s. "He has the name ID, the ratings, all that," admits Mr. Miller. "I'm a huge underdog, and I know it. It's going to be a tough race. The Democrats love him. The liberal Republicans love him. And the conservative Republicans are still wrestling with Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: 'Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.' So who's going to say anything negative about him?" Still, there are indications that Gov. Graves is not invincible. Feeling heat from conservatives, in April the governor reversed a pledge not to sign into law any abortion restrictions and signed a bill banning some partial-birth abortions. The law, according to Gov. Graves, allows partial-birth abortions to "prevent permanent and irreversible impairment of a pregnant woman's major bodily functions, mental and physical." That odd loophole was worked into the law at the last minute; the result is a piece of legislation so poorly written that lawmakers can't even agree on the meaning of the words, much less the intent. The governor's single act wasn't enough to pacify conservatives and quell the rebellion. But it was enough to anger his pro-abortion supporters and reinvigorate the disheartened Democratic Party, which wasn't even bothering to field a serious candidate against him. And the August 4 primary will likely draw a record-low turnout-so it's going to be about who can get their supporters energized and to the polls. "There's just no passion among Graves' supporters," Mr. Miller says. "There's nothing to get excited about." But in the Miller camp, energy abounds. James Dobson helped spark it when he came to Wichita in June to speak at a rally for Mr. Miller (and he brought along Alan Keyes). "He sure spooked the media," Mr. Miller laughs. And the governor, whose aides had to step lightly. "We don't disagree with Dr. Dobson's message," Graves spokesman Mike Matson told reporters. "If the idea is to focus on the family, we think people don't have to look very far to find a governor who does just that." But any Dobson appearance leads to talk of a split in the Republican Party, and that's part of the current buzz in Kansas. It's clear that Mr. Miller would make a good test case for a third-party run if he loses the primary. The Democratic opposition will be negligible, and there's a clear, bright line between Mr. Miller and Gov. Graves. Mr. Miller downplays this possibility. "I've always advocated working through the existing structure of the Republican Party," he says. "Those of us who are concerned about the moral issues need to be involved in that arena. We don't need to abandon it." Mr. Miller and his wife, Marjorie, were unable to have children. "I guess that helped make me more pro-life," he says. While he campaigns, Marjorie runs the insurance firm in Eudora. They're members of a United Methodist Church, but also attend a charismatic fellowship and Bible study. He spends some time each morning working through the late J. Vernon McGee's five-volume Through the Bible-for the second time. "One thing I hear from Christians-often-is that nice Christians don't do this sort of thing," he says. "But I really feel that this is what I'm supposed to be doing." His last stop of the afternoon is at the John Brown Festival in Osawatomie (pop. 5,000). He moves through the crowd slowly, hearing lots of talk about the lack of rain, the browning fields, and the baking grain silos. But it's not a drought yet, and people happily move on to talk about politics. "Well, what are you gonna do for us?" asks one old man in overalls, smiling beside an antique roadster. "Not much," Mr. Miller smiles back. "I'm the candidate who wants to leave you alone." The old man pauses, then his smile grows.

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