Firebrand Kansas congressman feels heat in Republican primary

Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp during a debate with candidate Dr. Roger Marshall.
Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp during a debate with candidate Dr. Roger Marshall. The Wichita Eagle

Rep. Tim Huelskamp came to Washington in a tea party wave that swept Republicans into the majority in the House of Representatives.

But six years later, he could be swept out in the Aug. 2 Republican primary in western Kansas’ sprawling First District, in part because of a redrawn district and dissatisfaction from the state’s agricultural interests about his record in Congress.

This year, Huelskamp, a farmer from Fowler, Kansas, faces a strong challenge from Roger Marshall, a physician from Great Bend who has the backing of the state’s influential agricultural sector.

The race is expected to be close, with both candidates polling even and raising a similar amount of funds. The candidates have exchanged sharp blows in debates and over the airwaves.

One Huelskamp ad used the recording from a 911 call in 2008 by one of Marshall’s neighbors, who told the dispatcher that Marshall nearly ran him over with a pickup truck. Court records show that Marshall pleaded no contest to reckless driving and paid a fine.

A Marshall ad in response displayed a series of negative headlines about Huelskamp that appeared to be from the state’s major newspapers, including the Wichita Eagle. However, the headlines were taken from language contained in newspaper editorials about Huelskamp.

Only one incumbent Republican member of Congress has lost a primary this year. North Carolina’s Renee Ellmers was defeated in a newly redrawn district. Huelskamp’s district is the largest and most rural in Kansas, but now it has a new eastern boundary that reflects a loss of population in the westernmost part, where he enjoys his strongest base of support.

While Ellmers had aligned herself with the Republican House leadership, Huelskamp took the opposite approach, proving to be a thorn in the side of former Speaker John Boehner.

Huelskamp has been one of the most outspoken opponents in Congress to abortion and gay marriage, as well as environmental regulations he considers burdensome to the district’s farmers and ranchers and oil and gas producers.

He’s an active member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of ultra-conservative members who’ve often thwarted the agenda of the chamber’s Republican leadership.

“If you want a proven conservative in Washington,” Huelskamp said in a debate this week, “you have one already.”

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, said Huelskamp is a true believer in his ideological cause.

“It’s something that makes constituents, particularly in the western part of the district, love him,” he said. “They absolutely adore the guy.”

But the new parts of Huelskamp’s district include a large Army base, Fort Riley near Junction City, and Kansas State University in Manhattan, and constituents who are not as libertarian on economic issues nor as socially conservative as those who live in the west.

The “Big First,” as the district is known, has a history of sending pragmatic conservatives to Congress. Before Huelskamp, Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts came from the district. Before them, there was former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.

“You can have an iconoclastic personality and be unusual in politics,” said former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat who represented Wichita from 1977 to 1995. “But in our system, you also have to get things done.”

Huelskamp faced no opposition in 2012 but a Republican challenger, Alan LaPolice, came within several percentage points of winning the primary in 2014. LaPolice, a school administrator from Clyde, will run as an independent in November.

Huelskamp infuriated Kansas farm groups by losing his seats on the House agriculture and budget committees in a 2012 dispute with Boehner. For at least a century, the agriculture committee had included a member of Congress from the state.

“To be pulled off a committee that represents the lifeblood of your district is very unusual,” said Glickman, who once served on the committee and later as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.

Huelskamp does have the backing of anti-abortion and gun-rights groups, as well as Roberts and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Kansas Republican presidential caucus in March. But Marshall thinks his more pragmatic approach will better serve the district in Washington than Huelskamp’s more confrontational style.

Earlier this month, Marshall received a coveted endorsement from the Kansas Farm Bureau. Huelskamp was the only one of the state’s four incumbent Republican members of Congress not to get the organization’s stamp of approval.

Marshall also earned the backing of the Dairy Farmers of America, the Grain Sorghum Producers Association and the Kansas Livestock Association.

In an interview, Marshall said 70 percent of the jobs in the 63-county district are ag-related, and that farmers needed representation on the House Agriculture Committee.

The district’s farm economy has been hurt by low commodity prices and drought, Marshall said.

“Our economy is really struggling,” he said. “Everything turns on the House ag committee.”

Jim Keady, a spokesman for the Huelskamp campaign, said the congressman is a “fierce advocate for Kansas agriculture.” Keady cited Huelskamp’s support for trade deals that opened new markets for Kansas products and his opposition to environmental regulations that could affect farmers.

“Just last week,” Keady said, “Congressman Huelskamp and his staff met with numerous ag groups in Washington, including the Kansas Farm Bureau, who had endorsed our opponent the week before.”

Huelskamp’s campaign declined a request for an interview. But Huelskamp has said his relationship with the House Republican leadership has improved since Boehner resigned late last year.

He’s a member of the House Steering Committee, which makes committee assignments. Keady said the congressman “remains confident he will return to the Ag Committee when this decision is made in December.”

But Huelskamp opposes an immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship for people who are not living in the country legally, legislation the ag groups and Marshall support.

He also opposes the federal renewable fuel standard, which requires ethanol, a corn-based fuel that’s produced in his district, be blended with gasoline. Marshall supports it.

Huelskamp enjoys backing from the National Rifle Association, Club for Growth and Kansas Right to Life. He also has attracted support from the Koch Industries political action committee. The Wichita-based conglomerate is well known for its support for conservative candidates and causes.

But Huelskamp faces considerable headwinds in Kansas. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is deeply unpopular, and the state is mired in an ongoing fiscal crisis. There are numerous contested primaries for seats in the state legislature.

“They’re angry with Topeka and angry with Washington,” Marshall said of voters.

Marshall said the remaining days of the campaign will be “jam-packed” with visits to county fairs, candidate forums and other events.

“We’ll be shaking as many hands as we can,” he said.

Amy Renee Leiker and Daniel Salazar of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this story.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis