‘A Case Study’ in Fight Between Good Old Boy Republicans and Free-Market Republicans

by Joel Gehrke

Republican primary voters who might have been expected to support federal subsidies as a matter of self-interest rejected a politician who favored such programs overwhelmingly in an election that Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) describes as “a controlled experiment” in the conservative base’s feelings about markets and business interests.

“It was a case study in the transition of the Republican party from the good-old-boys Republican party that talked about being pro-business to the very serious economic Republican party that talks about being pro-freedom and pro-competition,” Pompeo says of his primary victory during an interview with National Review Online.

Pompeo came to Congress in 2010 and immediately set about rolling back government subsidies for businesses, even in areas, such as that energy industry, that had strong ties to his state.

“Why on earth would we take money from the taxpayers to go support something that, if we’re right, markets will ultimately deliver in a way that we can’t even imagine,” Pompeo says, recalling how he and Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho), as first-year lawmakers, helped to convince House Republicans to drop their support for a bill favoring the natural gas industry.

His predecessor in Congress, former House Appropriations Committee member Todd Tiahrt, built a Republican primary challenge around his support for earmarks and the funding he had secured for the district during a 16-year congressional career.

“It’s the clearest time in recent Kansas history where you had one candidate who was very serious about limited government and the other one who was from another time, from the old good-old-boys Republican party, bringing home goodies, doing favors for your political friends, and not being serious about economic growth and freedom,” Pompeo says. “It was almost like a controlled experiment. We were both pro-life candidates, both pro-second amendment candidates, and so the distinction came down to those set of differences and we won two-to-one.”

To get that victory, Pompeo had to convince voters who had previously supported Tiahrt and the earmarks Tiahrt brought back to the district to reject that kind of government money.

“[Tiahrt would] go down to a particular place and say, ‘look at this thing I got for you,’” he explains. “And I’d get up and I would say ‘that’s a good thing, I’m glad that thing is there, but let me tell you what that cost you.’ And I would articulate what that meant in terms of the total cost of the legislation. You had a $2 million flood control project in a $21 billion transportation bill. You’d then say, ‘and, remember, too, not only did you get that flood project, but Mr. Tiahrt voted for an aquarium in San Francisco.’ And so, you reminded them what it meant to their kids and their grandkids.”

Rejecting the idea that lawmakers (and voters) have to choose between the Tea Party and being an effective member of Congress, Pompeo says that he doesn’t “go on TV and rail about things,” but instead convinces recalcitrant lawmakers to back off of their traditional support for business subsidies.

“My task is to, every day, be talking to people wherever they happen to sit — whether it’s an upstate northeast New York Republican or someone who is from a place that looks more like Kansas — and convince them that the way I think about what’s best for economic growth in America is the right answer for them, too,” Pompeo says. “When you do that, you get their respect. There is tension, because, sometimes, they’re voting for things that I just won’t ever vote for. But when you do that well — when you spend that time to help them understand where you’re coming from, and why you’re doing it, and why it matters – I think we can pull the Republican party into that place [where it is] is the party of creative destruction and competition, and not to that party that ends up putting in rules that only help those that already have a good foothold in Washington, D.C.”