Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost his bid for re-election in Tuesday’s Kansas primary, and it wasn’t even close.
Physician Roger Marshall defeated him by a 14-point margin, taking down one of the most prominent conservative rebels on Capitol Hill.
For all the national implications of the result, Huelskamp got caught up in a statewide shift in favor of more moderate Republicans, political observers say.
His defeat was tied to the unpopular policies of conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, which brought more traditional Republican voters to the polls in higher numbers.
Turnout in the 1st Congressional District was 104,000, up from 77,000 in 2014.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp got caught up in a statewide shift in favor of more moderate Republicans, political observers say.
Huelskamp’s allies in the conservative House of Representatives Freedom Caucus were quick to blame the House Republican leadership and special interest money, but in reality Huelskamp was simply undone by his caustic reputation in his district.
It’s a reputation that goes back to his days in the state Senate, where Huelskamp served for 14 years before coming to Congress. According to Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, Huelskamp asserted his independence with party leadership even then.
“He has his principles and standards,” Barker said. “Some people respect that. Some people find that hard to work with.”
In Congress, Huelskamp drew the wrath of the state’s agricultural interests for his voting record and his removal from the House Agriculture Committee in a spat with Republican House leaders.
“He made his own political bed,” said Patrick Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas, “and he was going to have to lie in it.”
He made his own political bed, and he was going to have to lie in it.
Patrick Miller, University of Kansas
Huelskamp, first elected in 2010, survived a primary challenge in 2014. But on Tuesday, he lost 48 of the 63 counties in the “Big First” congressional district.
He even lost Reno County, where his family lives, by 53 percent to 47 percent.
Districtwide, Marshall won 57 percent to Huelskamp’s 43 percent. That even surprised Marshall, who had expected a closer race.
“We did not expect the margin at all,” Marshall said in an interview Wednesday. “We closed fast in some counties.”
Marshall said he had spoken over the phone to three men who had previously been elected to Congress from the district: former Sen. Bob Dole and current Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.
“He’s very excited to work with me,” Marshall said of Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. “We have a nice friendship.”
Marshall said that by midday, Huelskamp had not called to concede or to congratulate him. Still, he said he was grateful for Huelskamp’s 20 years of political service to the state.
“We need to heal our wounds and get our state going in the right direction,” Marshall said.
Huelskamp, speaking to reporters on a conference call Wednesday, blamed his loss on the super PAC spending against him, along with what he said was poor media coverage.
“At the end of the day, if it was hand-to-hand combat, man to man, I would have beat him,” he said
He also noted Tuesday’s statewide trend.
“Conservatives did poorly across the state. And you have the poor economy, and the bad poll ratings of our current governor, I think, drug down anyone else who is a conservative,” he said.
48 Number of counties Huelskamp lost of the 63 in his district
Reporters from several media organizations were asked by the Huelskamp campaign to leave a “victory” party in Hutchinson on Tuesday evening as the results began coming in.
In a statement posted to the campaign’s Facebook page late Tuesday, Huelskamp blamed “billionaires and Washington special interests” for his defeat.
“Tonight Washington won and Kansas lost,” he wrote. “And all it took was a mere $3 million together with the conspiring liberal media to buy a congressional seat in the most expensive primary in Kansas history.”
Tonight Washington won and Kansas lost.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, in a Facebook post
The race did attract a large amount of outside spending, including more than $1 million from the ESA Fund, backed by wealthy philanthropists, and $400,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“The outside money just amplified it,” Barker said. “I don’t think the 1st District has ever seen a race like that.”
In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, praised Huelskamp’s commitment to fighting for “smaller, more accountable government.”
“For this,” Jordan said, “he was punished by the same party insiders and special interests that Republican voters across the country overwhelmingly rejected at the ballot box throughout the presidential nomination process.”
Marshall said he’d seen a groundswell in the final weeks after he got the endorsement of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
“Their word is golden,” he said. “We always believed this was a lot about agriculture.”
Miller said down-ballot races had driven turnout higher in the district and that more traditional Kansas Republicans made substantial gains there in state legislative races.
At least 10 conservative Republicans lost their seats in the Kansas Legislature, the Associated Press reported.
“There was this big anti-incumbent wave,” Marshall said. “They had people to vote for, rather than just against somebody.”
Miller said he wasn’t surprised that Marshall had won but that he hadn’t expected the margin to be so wide. A Fort Hays State University poll last month had the candidates tied, with about 15 percent of surveyed voters undecided.
“We know in races where there are a fair number of undecideds,” Miller said, “they tend to break decisively for the challenger.”
Dion Lefler of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this article from Wichita, Kansas.