Is This Lawmaker Too Conservative for the Tea Party?

Tim Huelskamp is ultra-conservative. So is his district. But he may lose his seat anyway.

This photo can only be used with the Joe Schmoe piece that originally ran on 2/3/2015. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., attends a forum in Rayburn called a Conversations with Conservatives to discuss issues including appropriations and the upcoming reconciliation package.
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Feb. 2, 2015, 3 p.m.

On pa­per, it’s a per­fect mar­riage. Kan­sas’ 1st Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict is about as con­ser­vat­ive as they come — and so is its cur­rent rep­res­ent­at­ive: Tim Huel­skamp.

Huel­skamp voted against in­creas­ing the debt ceil­ing in 2013 and against the 2014 budget com­prom­ise, and he re­ceived a 92 per­cent score from the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion — one of the highest scores for any House or Sen­ate mem­ber in the last Con­gress. He also spent his first two terms in open de­fi­ance of House Speak­er John Boehner, with his most fam­ous stunt com­ing in 2013, when he sat on the House floor taunt­ing the speak­er with a list of names of fel­low House Re­pub­lic­ans he said planned to vote against him.

Mean­while, the dis­trict Huel­skamp rep­res­ents, a sprawl­ing, ag­ri­cul­tur­al area cov­er­ing most of Kan­sas, has held a sim­il­arly con­ser­vat­ive line: Mitt Rom­ney won 70 per­cent of the dis­trict in 2012, and the Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port’s par­tis­an vot­ing in­dex ranks it as the 18th most con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict in the coun­try.

But just over four years in, Huel­skamp’s re­la­tion­ship with the dis­trict is strained, and it seems pos­sible, if not likely, that they’re on track for a 2016 di­vorce.

Huel­skamp struggled to win his primary last cycle, des­pite fa­cing an un­known chal­lenger with no polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence. And his op­pon­ents, em­boldened by that close call, have already star­ted talk­ing about a bet­ter or­gan­ized ef­fort to beat him in 2016. Judging by the kind of op­pos­i­tion he has at­trac­ted — as well as his close call in such a con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict — it is ap­par­ent that he hasn’t just rankled mod­er­ates. One of the most tea party-friendly dis­tricts in the coun­try has pushed back against Huel­skamp.

So what went wrong?

To Huel­skamp, it’s an is­sue of out­side in­ter­fer­ence from a ter­ri­fied GOP es­tab­lish­ment, the wrath of Boehner and oth­er “busi­ness-as-usu­al politi­cians” (as Huel­skamp calls them) who are des­per­ate to si­lence the rebel voice.

That doesn’t ex­plain, however, why Huel­skamp’s crit­ics with­in the tea party have soured on him. They say it’s not Huel­skamp’s true-be­liev­er polit­ics — it’s his scorched-earth style, a pesky-kid-on-cam­pus per­sona that they say has made him an in­ef­fec­tu­al sideshow rather than a force for con­ser­vat­ive val­ues. It was Huel­skamp’s clashes with Boehner that cost him his seat on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee. Huel­skamp claimed party lead­er­ship kept a score­card of mem­bers’ votes; Rep. Lynn West­mo­re­land said Huel­skamp and oth­ers lost their com­mit­tee as­sign­ments be­cause of “the a-hole factor.”

But the fo­cus on Huel­skamp’s fail­ure to keep his com­mit­tee seat opens a third pos­sib­il­ity: Per­haps the tea parti­ers aren’t angry that Huel­skamp broke his prom­ises; maybe they’re furi­ous be­cause he kept them. Huel­skamp ran on a pledge to make zero com­prom­ises in hold­ing a hard con­ser­vat­ive line. That comes at a cost, both for his stand­ing with­in the party and for his abil­ity to de­liv­er be­ne­fits to his home dis­trict. And back home, that may cost him sup­port from es­tab­lish­ment and tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans alike. Tea parti­ers buy gro­cer­ies just like every­one else, and when polit­ic­al ideo­logy com­petes with a paycheck, politi­cians who side with the former are al­most al­ways destined for trouble.

The “Boehner Con­spir­acy” The­ory

Ac­cord­ing to Huel­skamp, he’s still close with the au­then­t­ic con­ser­vat­ives; it’s es­tab­lish­ment forces mas­quer­ad­ing as tea-party faith­ful that are mak­ing trouble.

Alan LaPo­lice, who chal­lenged Huel­skamp in 2014 and might do so again, de­scribes him­self as a con­ser­vat­ive, but he was backed by ag­ri­cul­tur­al in­terests last cycle. And the op­pos­i­tion’s fa­vor­ite pro­spect­ive can­did­ate, phys­i­cian Ro­ger Mar­shall, sim­il­arly has de­scribed him­self as “very con­ser­vat­ive” and a “God-fear­ing Chris­ti­an,” but has also avoided an­ger­ing the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment or po­ten­tial donors, said Huel­skamp cam­paign spokes­man Mark Kelly.

Huel­skamp noted that Mar­shall an­nounced he might enter the race shortly after Huel­skamp voted against John Boehner for speak­er of the House. “It’s no sur­prise that Mr. Mar­shall an­nounced his in­terest with­in a week of my vote for new lead­er­ship in the U.S. House,” Huel­skamp said in a state­ment. Boehner and oth­er mem­bers of the es­tab­lish­ment want “an­oth­er busi­ness-as-usu­al politi­cian” who will go along with the status quo, he said.

(Huel­skamp also cited Mar­shall’s “his­tory of writ­ing big checks to lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans,” al­though those dona­tions gen­er­ally went to oth­er mem­bers of Kan­sas’s con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion, and even in­cluded $750 to Huel­skamp him­self between 2010 and 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.)

Des­pite his trouble in 2014, Huel­skamp still has sup­port from some tea-party groups. Adam Brandon, ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of Freedom­Works, said Huel­skamp has an “amaz­ing” re­cord, al­though the group is not mak­ing en­dorse­ments yet. And Craig Ga­bel, pres­id­ent of Kansans for Liberty, called Huel­skamp “the real deal” and said voters should re­spect that he’s but­ted heads with Boehner.

The “Some People Are Just Jerks” The­ory

But there are groups that have stood with oth­er tea party can­did­ates that have had enough of Huel­skamp.

Shortly be­fore his 2014 primary, the Now or Nev­er PAC, which has sup­por­ted can­did­ates such as former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, a tea-party fa­vor­ite, spent about $230,000 run­ning an at­tack ad against him. The spot, fea­tur­ing Con­es­toga En­ergy CEO Tom Wil­lis, said Huel­skamp “has put per­son­al polit­ics ahead of Kan­sas pro­du­cers,” cit­ing Huel­skamp los­ing his spot on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee and vot­ing against mul­tiple ver­sions of the farm bill. Wil­lis also said in the ad that when he con­fron­ted Huel­skamp about his ac­tions, “he re­spon­ded by threat­en­ing me and my com­pany.” Wil­lis later told the Topeka Cap­it­al-Journ­al that Huel­skamp said, “I will make you pay when I get back to D.C.,” which Huel­skamp has denied.

Trav­is Smith, a con­sult­ant with Ax­iom Strategies who said he “ran the ef­fort” for Now or Nev­er PAC, said the push was made by “key ag donors.” Smith said that the back­lash against Huel­skamp isn’t based on his con­ser­vat­ive re­cord, but rather on his in­ab­il­ity to be an ef­fect­ive le­gis­lat­or. “There really is a way some­body could have taken the same votes and not struggled in the primary, with a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude,” Smith said.

Smith hin­ted that Now or Nev­er PAC could get in­volved again in 2016 if a strong chal­lenger enters the race. “Ob­vi­ously now that we came with­in 10 points there’s blood in the wa­ter,” he said. “Every­body wants to run against him, and if it’s a good can­did­ate the money will be there.”

The “Keep­ing It Real Gone Wrong” The­ory

For all the com­plaints about Huel­skamp’s “style,” however, the first sin that his Kan­sas crit­ics point to is, again, that his Boehner-bait­ing got him kicked off the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee.

That left Kan­sas — a state that grows its own in­land ocean of wheat — without a rep­res­ent­at­ive on the pan­el for the first time in more than a cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to the Cap­it­al-Journ­al. As a res­ult, the Kan­sas Farm Bur­eau and oth­er ag­ri­cul­tur­al in­terest groups pulled their sup­port for Huel­skamp in 2014. (Huel­skamp was raised on a farm and earned a Ph.D. in polit­ic­al sci­ence con­cen­trat­ing on ag­ri­cul­ture policy.)

The pan­el’s most prom­in­ent job is craft­ing the Farm Bill, a le­gis­lat­ive be­hemoth that, in its 2014 in­carn­a­tion, would dole out nearly $1 tril­lion (over five years) in spend­ing on farm sub­sidies, food stamps, and oth­er pro­grams. And by keep­ing re­li­able rep­res­ent­a­tion on the pan­el, Kansans have pro­tec­ted key sup­ports for wheat and oth­er farm­ers.

Re­con­cil­ing fed­er­al farm sup­ports with a polit­ic­al philo­sophy that calls for the gov­ern­ment to largely keep out of the eco­nomy is dif­fi­cult, if not im­possible. But that doesn’t mean Huel­skamp can af­ford to deal his dis­trict out when it comes time to pick the re­cip­i­ents of those sup­ports. “It’s mainly an ag­ri­cul­tur­al dis­trict,” Clayton Bark­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an Party, said of Kan­sas’ 1st. “And that be­comes the big con­cern for voters. It’s their pock­et­book is­sue.”

It’s a mod­ern ver­sion of a near-ax­io­mat­ic fea­ture of fisc­al policy: Voters are gen­er­ally bullish on cut­ting “gov­ern­ment spend­ing,” but that en­thu­si­asm dis­sip­ates when it is time to cut the por­tions of gov­ern­ment spend­ing that voters count on to sup­port their house­holds. The same is likely true for tea parti­ers: They pro­fess to hate the Wash­ing­ton game, but as long as it keeps go­ing on, they want their rep­res­ent­at­ive to play.

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