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.”