Anger at Washington is not a mandate for ideological purity.
That’s one valuable lesson from Tuesday night’s primary result in Kansas’s first congressional district. And Representative Tim Huelskamp learned it the hard way.
Huelskamp, a conservative agitator who’s been a thorn in the Republican leadership’s side since coming to Congress in the tea-party wave of 2010, lost his seat Tuesday to obstetrician Roger Marshall, who campaigned on the message that Huelskamp was representing a rigid ideology rather than the people of Kansas’s “Big First” congressional district.
The message clearly resonated: Marshall won by 13 points, an unusually comfortable margin against an incumbent who has no ethical or legal baggage.
Without question, Huelskamp’s constituents are conservative: President Obama won just 28 percent of the vote there in 2012. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, the district is R+23, the 10th-most conservative in the country. Huelskamp, considered one of Congress’s most conservative members, would seem to be an ideal representative.
So why did he lose?
The Big First is more than a ruby-red bastion of Republicanism; it’s one of America’s premier farming districts. Nearly 90 percent of the district is rural, according to the Almanac of American Politics, and its occupants are overwhelmingly dependent on the agricultural industry. So when Huelskamp voted against the Farm Bill in 2013 — out of what he described as principled opposition to food-stamp spending in the bill, even though it had been drastically reduced — it didn’t go over well back home. Here’s how the Kansas City Star covered it:
The House has barely passed a new farm bill that has been stripped of roughly $80 billion in annual spending for nutrition programs, including food stamps. … Incredibly, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of KS-01 — one of the most farm-centered districts in the United States — was one of just 12 GOP votes against the measure. Other local GOP Reps — Vicky Hartzler, Sam Graves, Kevin Yoder, Lynn Jenkins, Mike Pompeo — were yes votes.
What made Huelskamp’s vote especially damaging was that he no longer served on the House Agriculture Committee. He had been booted from the panel the previous December by then-Speaker John Boehner as punishment for voting repeatedly against the party leadership during the GOP’s first term in the majority. In other words: Huelskamp couldn’t even tell his constituents that he had battled inside the committee for a stronger bill to better represent their interests, because he no longer served on the committee.
All of this triggered a primary challenge in 2014 — one that Huelskamp, despite having lost the support of the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Livestock Federation, successfully fought off. With the assistance of allied conservative outside groups, Huelskamp won a closer-than-expected contest against Alan LaPolice, a former education official, by 10 points.
Huelskamp, feeling validated by the victory, pursued no course-correction upon his return to Congress. His first vote in January 2015 was against Boehner’s reelection as speaker, signaling that he would continue to buck the party leadership whenever possible.
It was clear, however, that opponents in his district — and Huelskamp’s enemies in D.C. — smelled blood in the water. For 2016 they recruited a stronger candidate, Marshall, and poured money into the Big First on his behalf. Huelskamp, sensing danger, pleaded with Speaker Paul Ryan to reinstall him on the Agriculture Committee. Ryan was non-committal, angering some conservative allies of Huelskamp who believed the GOP leadership was undermining one if its own members. (In truth, the battle in Huelskamp’s district was unusually asymmetrical; he had the support of Senator Ted Cruz and national tea-party groups, but was opposed by some of Cruz’s most prominent allies, and also by the Ricketts family, who funded the #NeverTrump movement earlier this year.)
In the end, despite representing a deeply conservative district, Huelskamp’s political purity — he scored 100 percent with FreedomWorks, 100 percent with the Club for Growth, and 92 percent with Heritage Action in 2014 — could not save him. That’s likely because Huelskamp’s constituents, and Republicans voters in general, are less ideological and more results-oriented than once assumed.
Exhibit A is Donald Trump, who scored primary victories in some of America’s most conservative jurisdictions despite a long record of liberal stances on everything from abortion to entitlement reform. In a scorecard of policy positions, Trump would likely have ranked as the least conservative of the 17 Republican presidential candidates. Yet historic numbers of GOP voters were willing to overlook his policy portfolio. Why? Because none of Trump’s competitors could compete with his message of anti-establishment resentment, or with his messianic promises to protect Americans from economic and national security threats, or with his pledge to purge Washington of its indolent bureaucrats and incompetent politicians.
Trump rode a wave of anti-Washington rage to the GOP nomination; it’s the same wave that carried Republicans to the House majority in 2010. The difference is, whereas incoming members like Huelskamp believed the electorate’s anger was rooted in ideological conviction, Trump proved it was more the byproduct of institutional distrust. Voters care about certain policies, of course. But they seem to care more about whether elected officials are responsive to their needs and reflective of their concerns. Even small-government voters want government to work well for them.
What’s ironic is that Huelskamp’s fellow conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus have a common saying: The American people think Washington has forgotten about them and no longer represents them. That’s true. And it’s a serious problem. But if you represent Kansas’s first congressional district, getting kicked off the Agriculture Committee — and then voting against the Farm Bill — does little to solve it.