Sam Brownback: The possible GOP presidential contender no one's talking about

The governor of Kansas isn't ruling anything out. But first he needs to win re-election

You won’t see Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback taking high profile trips to Iowa, South Carolina or New Hampshire. He’s not on the star-studded speech lineup at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. Nor is he listed in national polls that measure hypothetical presidential matchups in 2016.

But Brownback, a former U.S. senator who briefly sought the presidency in 2007, isn’t ruling out another run for the White House.

Since he left the nation’s capital to become Kansas’ 46th governor in 2011, Brownback has gone largely unnoticed by the national media. His quiet yet ambitious work in Kansas has proceeded without major controversies of the sort that have helped define Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who fought a pitched battle with public-sector unions, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was a magnet for viral controversies even before the recent allegations of misconduct surrounding the closure of George Washington Bridge lanes.

But that doesn't mean Brownback hasn't been fighting fiercely to enact his worldview. Over the past three years, he has spearheaded an aggressive conservative agenda in Kansas that includes a massive state tax decrease and the implementation of a privatized Medicaid system called KanCare. During his first term, he has presided over the passage of some of the strictest anti-abortion bills in the country, including a ban on the procedure after 21 weeks of pregnancy.

In February, Brownback traveled back to Washington, where he addressed a small group of reporters to discuss his record in Kansas and his plans for the future. At a time when Republicans in Washington are talking more about the plight of the poor, Brownback is also emphasizing the GOP’s need to focus more on tackling poverty and mental health issues, and he argues that states should have more freedom to implement social welfare programs.

For Brownback, the focus on poverty is not a novel turn but a long-standing commitment. During his time in the Senate, Brownback branded himself as a “compassionate conservative.” The description has fallen out of fashion since George W. Bush adopted it as Texas governor to describe his own governing philosophy. But it's a philosophy that's quietly coming back into vogue, thanks to a new generation of Republicans led by Brownback's former legislative director Paul Ryan, now the House budget chairman.

On Monday, Ryan released a dense, 204-page report that examined the effectiveness of federal anti-poverty programs. The report concluded that these programs are “failing to address the problem" of poverty and in "some significant respects making it worse.”

Others in the GOP, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have made discussing poverty a priority as well.

“I generally call it a bleeding-heart conservative agenda,” Brownback, who converted to Catholicism in 2002, said of his approach. “We’ve got to be able to address the problems we have on a very granular basis.”

There's also the hope that talking frankly about poverty can help the GOP begin again to woo minority voters. Bush was the last Republican presidential candidate to make any headway with black and Hispanic voters — gains that helped propel him into the White House. But after his failed 2006 bid for comprehensive immigration reform, the party turned away from the somewhat bigger tent model for the GOP he'd honed in Texas, one of the most heavily Hispanic states in the nation. Brownback, who was a co-sponsor of the immigration bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship to unlawful immigrants, said Republican candidates must spend more time talking to a diverse range of voters, even if those voters don’t end up supporting the party immediately.

“I think you need to do outreach. I think you need to go different places,” Brownback said. “I go and work in a lot of districts where I don’t expect to win. But I do that more, because at some point in time, I’m no longer going to be here and I’m going to have to face my maker and he’ll say, 'What did you do with what I gave you?’ And I want to have as clean a heart as I can to say, 'I tried to do everything I possibly could that I thought was right.' And if this area needs working in, I’m going to go there regardless of the political consequences to it, because I think I got a responsibility here.”

As to the direct question about presidential ambitions, Brownback, who is facing a tough re-election battle for governor this fall, is coy. When pressed three times about whether he was open to the possibility of running for president, Brownback repeatedly said: “I’m fully occupied and very happy with what I’m doing. I’m up for re-election. I’m a candidate for governor of Kansas.”

Brownback has good reason not to let on too much about future plans. His re-election is far from a sure thing. While Brownback’s Sunflower State shakeup has won him accolades from conservative reformers, it has also emboldened Democrats in the traditionally red state to launch a vigorous effort to unseat him.

“I’ve been in the Legislature for 38 years, and I’ve served with eight different governors, both Democrats and Republicans. He is by far and away the most extreme and conservative governor in the time I’ve been in politics,“ Democratic State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, one of Brownback’s chief critics, told Yahoo News.

Last month a Public Policy Polling survey in Kansas showed Brownback in a statistical tie with Democratic challenger Paul Davis, who currently serves as the state House minority leader. The poll also found that just a third of Kansas voters approve of Brownback’s job as governor, while more than half disapprove. Other public opinion polls conducted last fall found similar vulnerabilities for his campaign. Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association announced last week that it would back Davis financially, putting further pressure on Brownback’s campaign.

Facing a close race for re-election, any hint that Brownback is looking beyond Kansas would obviously not bode well for his efforts locally.

But if you ask Sam Brownback to describe his ideal Republican presidential nominee, he, well, describes Sam Brownback.

“I’d rather see somebody coming forward with a series of pro-market individualized solutions and a compassionate conservative Wilberforce-type agenda,” Brownback said. The reference to William Wilberforce, the English politician who ended the slave trade in 1807, was not subtle. Invoking the man whose work led to the end of slave-trading in the British Empire 200 years ago might seem obscure, but it is a clear hint of his ambitions. Brownback is harkening back to the persona he adopted during his last presidential run. In 2006, The Economist magazine dubbed Brownback “The Wilberforce Republican,” and in 2007, Brownback led a successful campaign in the Senate to honor Wilberforce with a resolution noting his life and work.

“I think our side really needs to come up with a series of pro-growth policies that work and you’ve shown that they work, and a series of programs that deal with issues like poverty or on providing health care or mental health that are much more individualistic," Brownback said, sounding again as though he's describing himself as the ideal candidate. "That’s what needs to come forward from our side.”

Brownback’s gubernatorial campaign spokesman, Dave Kensinger, didn’t shut the door on the idea of a presidential run either, although he did emphasize Brownback’s commitment to the governor’s race.

“You never say never, but there are certainly no plans at this time,” Kensinger told Yahoo News. “I’ll say this: He’s spent some time in public service in Washington and he’s spent some time in public service here. He much prefers here, as I think anybody would.”

While Christie was once seen as a clear front-runner for the nomination, controversies surrounding his administration have created space for what could be a wide-open race to become the party standard-bearer.

At this early juncture, there could be an opening for a candidate like Brownback, a veteran policymaker in good standing with the social and economic conservative wings of the Republican Party coalition. Brownback would, however, struggle with low national name-ID when compared to well-known Republicans such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Rubio. It could also be a challenge for him to raise the money necessary to launch a presidential bid, as it was in 2007, when he dropped out of the race because of a lack of funds.

It is also too early, of course, to say how Brownback would measure up in a hypothetical matchup against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she runs and wins the Democratic nomination, and in the unlikely event he makes it out of the primaries as the winner.

But it’s worth noting that she and Brownback have worked together in the past. The duo developed a friendship as members of a weekly bipartisan Senate prayer group in the mid-2000s. According to an account at the time in the Atlantic Monthly, at one notable meeting in 2006, Brownback turned to Clinton and “confessed to having hated Clinton and having said derogatory things about her.” He asked for her forgiveness, the Atlantic reported, and she gave it. The two went on to develop a working relationship in the Senate and co-sponsored bills together. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is far more eager to discuss his presidential ambitions, was also a member of the group and got to know Clinton through it as well.

“That morning helped make our working relationship,” Brownback told the Atlantic. “It brought me close to someone I did not ever imagine I would become close to.”

Now, eight years later, Brownback distances himself from Clinton. “I haven’t spoken to her in a while,” he told Yahoo News when asked if they still have a relationship. He added that among Senate Democrats, he held closest relationships with Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, both of whom have since died.

Looking ahead to 2016, Brownback may be flying well under the radar, but it would be foolish to discount him as a possible contender.

But for now, he’ll focus on winning that re-election in November.