Kansas farmers are taking on some of America’s most powerful conservative interests in an attempt to oust U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party favorite kicked off the House Agriculture Committee for ideological rigidity.
The Club for Growth and the Koch brothers, whose Koch Industries Inc. is based in Wichita, are backing Huelskamp, who opposed a farm bill providing crop insurance farmers deem vital -- which former Speaker John Boehner backed. For farmers, little means more than Huelskamp’s opposition to the bill and loss of his committee seat, marking the end of almost a century of Kansas representation. Agribusiness groups support Republican primary challenger Roger Marshall, an obstetrician who says regaining the state’s voice on farm matters is his first priority.
“As a farmer or a rancher, we need the safety net of the farm bill,” said Orin Holle, a Rawlins County farmer. “Western Kansas, which is most of his district, sees severe droughts.”
The Aug. 2 primary may show the limits of the anti-establishment politics that have swept Kansas. In 2012, Governor Sam Brownback, promising a “real live experiment” for Tea Party policies, won enactment of broad tax cuts. The resulting $400 million budget hole forced public schools to end the school year early and led Standard & Poor’s to downgrade Kansas’s credit one step to AA, third-highest, and to put it on watch for further reductions.
Brownback won re-election, but the state’s Republican Party was bitterly split. Huelskamp’s loss of the Agriculture Committee seat provides another test of the state’s faith in ideology over pragmatism.
The Big First
The 60,000-square-mile (155,400-square-kilometer) First District -– known locally as the "Big First," covering approximately the northern and western two-thirds of the state -– has more cattle than people. Representing the area and its farmers, who produce wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, hay and more, is usually a stepping stone to statewide office. Among growers’ biggest concerns is the farm bill, an omnibus that appeals to Republicans for its agricultural subsidies and to Democrats for its food stamps. Huelskamp voted against every proposed version of the most recent measure.
Huelskamp, a 47-year-old, fifth-generation farmer from Fowler who began his tenure in 2011, said he’s sensitive to constituent needs.
“Crop insurance was my first, second, third priority in the farm bill and it was in there,” he said. He voted against the bill, he said, because it didn’t require stricter work requirements for the more than 46 million Americans seeking food stamps at the time.
Huelskamp’s unpopular vote has been a selling point for Marshall’s election fundraising. By June 30, Marshall had out-raised Huelskamp, taking in $866,447 to Huelskamp’s $676,292, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission data. Still, Huelskamp had more than $625,000 in cash on hand, while Marshall had only about $243,000.
Battling the Party
Huelskamp blames his December 2012 ouster from the Agriculture Committee on Boehner -- retribution for his refusal to vote for Republican bills, including Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan. He lost his seat on Ryan’s Budget Committee at the same time.
“I’m not up here to take on a battle with my own party, but I have to stand on my principles,” Huelskamp said. “Taking on Washington sometimes means taking on your own party.”
Huelskamp says his relationship with Ryan, who is now speaker, has improved, pointing to his position among more than 30 members of the Republican House Steering Committee, which handles committee appointments.
Despite that, the chance of Huelskamp’s returning to the agriculture panel is “next to zero, and it’s a gamble that my children and my grandchildren cannot take,” Marshall said.
AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said it’s too early to speculate on committee assignments. Emily Hytha, communications director for Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas, declined to comment on whether the two have discussed the matter.
There’s also no guarantee Marshall would get a spot on the committee if he wins. The 55-year-old from Great Bend declined to align himself with the party establishment, calling himself a “traditional Kansas conservative.” He said the biggest difference between him and Huelskamp is that he’s a “peacemaker.”
That, and the agriculture industry is backing him.
“I have a great relationship with lots of agriculture industries,” Marshall said, citing the Kansas Livestock Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Sorghum Producers.
“All those people want a person from Kansas on the Agriculture Committee,” he said.
The Livestock Association, which declined to endorse a candidate in 2014, endorsed Marshall in December — much earlier than normal — with the hope of encouraging other groups to follow suit, said Chief Executive Officer Matt Teagarden.
The Kansas Farm Bureau’s endorsement came after “substantial” support among county chapters, spokesman Warren Parker said.
The National Sorghum Producers also refrained from endorsing a candidate last cycle, but now backs Marshall.
“The Big First represents almost a third of our industry,” National Sorghum Producers Chief Executive Officer Tim Lust said. Of Huelskamp, he said, “You’ve got to be able to build bridges and work with people. That’s been an issue.”
Huelskamp has the support of the National Rifle Association and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who won the Kansas presidential primary with 48.2% of the vote. Doug Sachtleben, communications director for Club for Growth, said Huelskamp has a 100 percent lifetime score in his organization’s ratings.
“In terms of cutting taxes, cutting spending, he’s very solid,” Sachtleben said. “The committee assignment is not an issue with us.” The organization supported Huelskamp’s stance on food stamps, Sachtleben said.
Lacye R. Tennille, treasurer of the Koch Industries political action committee, didn’t return a message seeking comment about the group’s $10,000 donation to Huelskamp’s campaign.
‘Neck and Neck’
Endorsements aside, defeating an incumbent is rare. In the past decade, according to the nonpartisan political newsletter the Crystal Ball, 27 House incumbents seeking re-election have lost their primaries – a loss rate of 1.36 percent. In 2014 Huelskamp narrowly won his primary without any major agriculture endorsements.
This race, however, may be less of a longshot. Ohio-based Clout Research found Marshall leading Huelskamp at 49 percent to 42 percent of likely primary voters, with 9 percent undecided and an error margin of 3.93 percentage points.
Whoever wins the primary will most likely win in the general election, in which the winner will face an independent and a libertarian candidate in the solidly red district.
The primary is “going to be neck-and-neck,” Joe Romance, a political-science professor at Fort Hays State University, said. “Marshall’s a strong challenger.”