This Freedom Caucus Member Has a Primary Problem

Tim Huelskamp is now in a one-on-one race.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp questions Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald about a pending Veterans Affairs health care budget shortfall and system shutdown during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 22, 2015.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
May 5, 2016, 8 p.m.

Rep. Tim Huel­skamp’s reelec­tion just hit its first ma­jor hurdle.

The Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an has con­fron­ted a com­pet­it­ive primary for months against two op­pon­ents in his deep-red dis­trict. But on Wed­nes­day, Alan LaPo­lice—who won 45 per­cent of the vote against Huel­skamp in 2014—dropped out of the primary and an­nounced he would run as an in­de­pend­ent, free­ing up anti-Huel­skamp voters to co­alesce around a single primary chal­lenger.

That leaves phys­i­cian Ro­ger Mar­shall and his sup­port­ers with fresh signs of hope of tak­ing out an in­cum­bent whose sup­port took a sig­ni­fic­ant hit last cycle.

“This is our best chance,” said Dee Likes, the former head of the Kan­sas Live­stock As­so­ci­ation, which is back­ing Mar­shall. “He is the highest qual­ity can­did­ate that’s run against Huel­skamp. And now it’s a bin­ary choice.”

Huel­skamp pulled out a primary win in 2014 against the little-known LaPo­lice by few­er than 8,000 votes. That closer-than-ex­pec­ted res­ult came after he voted against the farm bill, a key pri­or­ity in the heav­ily agrari­an 1st Dis­trict, which en­com­passes most of the west­ern half of the state. The House Free­dom Caucus mem­ber also faced back­lash in that race after be­ing stripped of his po­s­i­tion on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee thanks to his op­pos­i­tion to party lead­er­ship.

Since then, his op­pon­ents have ar­gued that a can­did­ate with a more for­mid­able cam­paign could de­feat him. Though they viewed Mar­shall as the stronger can­did­ate, LaPo­lice com­plic­ated his path by threat­en­ing to peel away votes in the Aug. 2 primary, which could again be de­cided by a tight mar­gin.

“This isn’t the in­cum­bent versus some un­known with no re­sources kind of primary,” said Clay Bark­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an Party. “Mar­shall presents a le­git­im­ate chal­lenge to Huel­skamp. I’m not sure who is ahead right now.”

Huel­skamp spokes­man Mark Kelly said the con­gress­man is in strong shape for his reelec­tion, point­ing out the hun­dreds of town halls he has held in the dis­trict and his new­found in­flu­ence in Con­gress as a mem­ber of the House Steer­ing Com­mit­tee, the power­ful pan­el in charge of mak­ing com­mit­tee as­sign­ments.

“Des­pite at­tacks from some in­siders in Wash­ing­ton, I’m mak­ing a dif­fer­ence on a num­ber of is­sues and try­ing to change Wash­ing­ton,” Huel­skamp told Na­tion­al Journ­al earli­er this year.

Since gain­ing the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee slot, Huel­skamp has said he ex­pects to re­turn to the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee. But that pro­cess will not be­gin un­til the fall, after the Novem­ber elec­tions.

“I haven’t had any con­ver­sa­tions with him,” Ag­ri­cul­ture Chair­man Mike Con­away said in a brief in­ter­view in the Cap­it­ol last week. “Noth­ing is a sure bet.” Kelly said the con­gress­man has spoken with mem­bers of the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee and party lead­er­ship about the pan­el.

In the mean­time, Mar­shall picked up sup­port from key ag­ri­cul­ture groups, in­clud­ing the Kan­sas Live­stock As­so­ci­ation and the Dairy Farm­ers of Amer­ica. He is also draw­ing more fin­an­cial sup­port than Huel­skamp, out­rais­ing the in­cum­bent in the past four fun­drais­ing quar­ters. But as of March 31, Huel­skamp had $837,000 in cash on hand, while Mar­shall had $484,000, pad­ded by $218,000 in per­son­al loans and con­tri­bu­tions.

“There are some folks that are very in­ter­ested in look­ing at Mar­shall,” said War­ren Park­er, dir­ect­or of policy com­mu­nic­a­tions at the Kan­sas Farm Bur­eau. “Mar­shall is cer­tainly do­ing his work out there.”

Mar­shall is act­ively high­light­ing Huel­skamp’s re­mov­al from the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee. In a state­ment, he called the con­gress­man “a re­cur­ring em­bar­rass­ment to Re­pub­lic­ans in Kan­sas.”

The Kan­sas Farm Bur­eau de­clined to back Huel­skamp in 2014, angered by his farm bill vote. This cycle, the group hasn’t is­sued an en­dorse­ment yet.

In choos­ing to run as an in­de­pend­ent, LaPo­lice cited his dis­en­chant­ment with both parties and ac­know­ledged that Mar­shall now has an easi­er path in the primary.

“My leav­ing the primary gives Dr. Mar­shall a bet­ter op­por­tun­ity at po­ten­tially win­ning it,” LaPo­lice said. “But that is not my mo­tiv­a­tion.” LaPo­lice ad­ded that he still be­lieves in “tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an val­ues.”

The Now or Nev­er PAC, which spent $234,000 in 2014 to op­pose Huel­skamp, will not en­gage in the race this time. But the main donor be­hind the group, Cecil O’Brate, who donated to Mar­shall, said in a state­ment that Mar­shall will keep re­ceiv­ing the “full breadth of our sup­port,” in­clud­ing fin­an­cial help.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans said Huel­skamp’s no-holds-barred style is what will en­dear him to GOP voters. In a sign that Huel­skamp is tak­ing his reelec­tion ser­i­ously, he is skip­ping the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion and plans to spend the fi­nal two weeks be­fore the primary cam­paign­ing in Kan­sas.

“Tim Huel­skamp is a man who says what he means and means what he says,” said Randy Duncan, the 1st Dis­trict Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­man. “I am con­fid­ent he will win reelec­tion.”

Some Re­pub­lic­ans pre­dicted the race could eas­ily evolve ahead of the Aug. 2 primary in­to a spend­ing battle­ground for both fac­tions of the GOP, giv­en its re­l­at­ively in­ex­pens­ive me­dia mar­kets.

In Decem­ber, Na­tion­al Re­view re­por­ted that the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce may tar­get Huel­skamp. If the in­cum­bent looks in­creas­ingly en­dangered, he will have the sup­port of at least one of his con­ser­vat­ive al­lies, Freedom­Works, ac­cord­ing to the group’s spokes­man Jason Pye, who left open the pos­sib­il­ity that the group’s PAC could make in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures on Huel­skamp’s be­half.

“I’d prob­ably say right now it’s prob­ably about a 60-40 like­li­hood that Huel­skamp would win,” said Chap­man Rack­away, a former GOP strategist who is now a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Fort Hays State Uni­versity. “But the LaPo­lice exit really makes a clear­er path and strategy for Mar­shall.”

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