Dozens of Republican primaries in recent years have pitted a conservative challenger against an establishment incumbent. But voters in Kansas’s first district tonight are witnessing a role reversal: The fire-breathing conservative-style candidate is not the challenger but the incumbent.
Representative Tim Huelskamp, a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus, could lose his seat Tuesday in what has been a nail-biter of a primary to Roger Marshall, an obstetrician who has won the backing of a number of agricultural and business interests as well as outside groups looking to oust Huelskamp. It is a race that is hyper-focused on local issues, but that has also drawn national attention thanks to the millions of dollars it has sucked in from outside groups in what some see as the first major proxy battle between the Freedom Caucus and House speaker Paul Ryan.
“It’s about insiders versus an outsider,” says Huelskamp in a Monday evening phone interview. “It’s about the Washington, D.C., establishment out after conservatives.” But it’s not that simple. The Kansas race has scrambled many of the normal alliances on the right: Ted Cruz has endorsed Huelskamp, even as the firm owned by his own campaign manager, Jeff Roe, works against the congressman. The Club for Growth, another Huelskamp backer, spent much of the primary season working arm in arm against Donald Trump with the megadonors Joe and Todd Ricketts; in Kansas the Club and the Ricketts are on opposite sides, with the Club working on Huelskamp’s behalf and the ESAFund, a super PAC funded by the Ricketts, working against him.
How did this happen?
The seeds of this primary were sown in 2012 and 2013, when former House speaker John Boehner retaliated against Huelskamp for thwarting House leadership by tossing him from the Agriculture Committee. The loss of that post, a key one for Huelskamp’s district, which spans rural Kansas, has been a major flashpoint in this campaign. A number of major agricultural groups deserted Huelskamp this year because he lost the seat, and now each candidate insists he is more likely than the other to win a spot on the committee next year.
“I think I’ve got the votes to get back on the Agriculture Committee,” Huelskamp says. Politico reported in July that Huelskamp asked Speaker Ryan to make a public promise to put him back on the committee, but Ryan has declined to do anything to tip the scales in this race.
In a statement provided to National Review, the Speaker was non-committal: “When I became Speaker, I told all of our members that we are starting fresh with a clean slate. And I’ve long thought Kansas should be represented on the House Committee on Agriculture. Tim Huelskamp has the kind of background that could serve the state well on the Ag Committee. These kinds of assignments ultimately will be decided by the Republican steering committee at the end of the year.”
But the result is that some Kansans are skeptical that Huelskamp will ever regain the post. “I think that the fact that the Speaker hasn’t come out and said ‘I’m willing to put Tim back on the committee’ speaks volumes,” says Aaron Popelka, vice president of legal and government affairs of the Kansas Livestock Association.
The loss of the seat has also been used to highlight what many characterize as Huelskamp’s personal prickliness, a difficulty working with his colleagues that some fault for his loss of the precious committee seat.
“Tim has just kind of put himself in a position where he’s become irrelevant in Washington. He can’t seem to work with others whether in his party or out,” says Warren Parker, policy communications director for the Kansas Farm Bureau, which endorsed Marshall last month.
Representatives and volunteers for the Kansas Livestock Association have been “disappointed” with their yearly meetings with Huelskamp in D.C., says Popelka. “Most of the conversation was about the process and how bad the leadership was treating him. And our guys’ issues they felt like just weren’t landing,” he says. Having lost his spot on the Agriculture Committee, Popelka says, Huelskamp wasn’t in a position to “advance those concerns” anyway. Huelskamp, for his part, shrugs his shoulders at the opposition he has evoked from such groups. “They’re part of this race, but they’re a very small part of the $2 million against me.”
#share#Huelskamp and his allies say the race is John Boehner’s payback for the years Huelskamp spent working to thwart his agenda. “I think that if you could dust the campaign you’d see John Boehner’s fingerprints on it,” says Iowa representative Steve King, who stumped with Huelskamp last week. Huelskamp too describes the challenge as the “revenge” of the former House leadership. He alleges that some of the funding for his opponent comes from “Eric Cantor’s friends on Wall Street.”
Boehner and Cantor are no longer in office, but Huelskamp attacks House leadership in a way that suggests he sees little difference between the new regime and the old. Leadership, Huelskamp says, without mentioning anyone in leadership by name, pledges to “stand with incumbents and that’s not been the case.” A Ryan aide disputes that characterization. “We support all our incumbents, including Tim Huelskamp,” the aide says.
Ousting Huelskamp would illustrate that the threat of a primary challenge goes both ways; that it’s not just establishment-style Republicans who can be punished.
But while Ryan is not taking any steps against dissenters within his conference, outside groups have shown no such qualms. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the ESAFund (formerly Ending Spending) have both spent against Huelskamp in Kansas. ESAFund president Brian Baker says this is about Huelskamp specifically, saying he “cares more about special-interest scorecards and large corporate lobbyists than the people who elected [him].” But ousting Huelskamp would illustrate that the threat of a primary challenge goes both ways; that it’s not just establishment-style Republicans who can be punished by their own party at the ballot box.
The resulting message if Huelskamp were to lose, says former Virginia representative and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Davis, is that for members who vote against the Speaker, “there’s a price for that. They used to do this with impunity,” he says.
Others say that the simplest explanation for Huelskamp’s troubles is that many people, quite simply, do not like him.
Parker, of the Kansas Farm Bureau, notes that it’s not Freedom Caucus members writ large who lost their committee spots. “There are other members — very conservative members of the Freedom Caucus and others — that aren’t getting tossed off of two committees,” he says. “And so he’s just put himself into this position that people just look at him as someone they cannot work with, committee members do not want him on the committees, and he’s just made himself irrelevant.”
#related#Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a member of the Steering Committee until January, says the committee declined Boehner’s request in 2015 to put Huelskamp back on the Agriculture Committee. “It was the only time I really saw the Speaker really not get what he wanted,” Westmoreland says.
Tom Willis, an agribusinessman who has been involved in the efforts to oust Huelskamp both this year and in 2014 and appears in an ESAFund ad, says the congressman is prickly not just with other members of Congress. Willis says that Huelskamp threatened retaliation against him at a town hall in 2014 after he backed Huelskamp’s primary challenger that year.
“I’m a Ronald Reagan guy. Personally, I never speak ill of another Republican,” says Willis. “But this is an exception.”