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Huelskamp Falls In GOP Primary Race In Kansas' ‘Big First’ Congressional District

Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3

Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost his Congressional seat from western Kansas Tuesday night, beat by a political unknown in a primary race that turned on farming and a firebrand personality.

Huelskamp, 47, who rode in the Tea Party wave of 2010 and became known as the most aggressive of its Freedom Coalition, fell to Roger Marshall, an obstetrician and an outsider, who won with lots of insider money.

Just an hour after the polls closed at 7 p.m., as Marshall surged ahead, Huelskamp kicked reporters out of his would-be victory party. Marshall called the race by 10 p.m., thanking his supporters and reminding them that his brothers always called him Henry Kissinger for his diplomatic skills at bringing people together.

“I’ll be so proud to go to Washington and represent Kansas and agriculture, to put the pieces together,” he told a cheering crowd.

While many in Washington D.C. said the race illustrated the GOP’s current civil war, people in Kansas said Huelskamp’s biggest sin was the failure to support the district’s bread and butter: agriculture. The “Big First,” as the district is called, is a land mass as large as the state of Georgia, awash in wheat, corn, soybeans and cattle.

Huelskamp failed to follow in the successful steps of conservative Republicans who held the seat before him, including Sens. Jerry Moran and Bob Dole. While both talked about cutting taxes and limiting government, they worked to get federal funds flowing into Kansas, said Michael Smith, an Emporia State political scientist.

“The Big First is one of the leading congressional districts in the whole country for farm subsidies,” Smith said. “I think there’s still some gas left in the old-school politics where you take care of your district."

Surprising many, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s most powerful farm and ranch group, gave its endorsement to Marshall in July, marking the first time the Farm Bureau didn’t go with an incumbent it had backed in the past.

Seven farm groups endorsed Marshall, tagging their opposition to Huelskamp because he was booted from the House Agriculture Committee, his vote against the 2014 Farm Bill and his lack of support for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, the Department of Homeland Security's billion-dollar animal disease research facility being built in the district.

“Huelskamp has burned bridges with his colleagues, farmers and ranchers, and many others,” read a Kansas Farm Bureau release. “For the first time in nearly a century, Kansas does not have a voice on the House Agriculture Committee.”

The race in a district in one of the least populous states attracted lots of campaign cash, including an incredible $2.7 million in spending by outside groups, mostly attacking Huelskamp. Marshall also won in donations, pulling in $890,000 while Huelskamp brought in $720,000.

Marshall now faces a Libertarian, Kerry Burt of Hutchinson, in the November election. Another candidate, Alan LaPolice, of Clyde, who came close to defeating Huelskamp in the 2014 primary, has launched a write-in campaign as an independent and hopes to be on the November ballot.

Huelskamp lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee in 2012, pushed out by then-Speaker John Boehner because Huelskamp didn’t back GOP leadership. Huelskamp retaliated, helping lead the “Freedom Coalition,” which ousted Boehner last year.

At stops out on the campaign trail, Huelskamp said that he will get his seat back on the Ag Committee. But House Speaker Paul Ryan stayed mum on the issue.

But Huelskamp was also simply unpopular with many state leaders and constituents and rumors of a primary challenge began in 2014. His abrasive personality and fierce devotion to his conservative ideals – even when he kept losing – turned many away. Those in his own party said he was one of the biggest jerks on Capitol Hill.

Even former Sen. Bob Dole, the beloved godfather of Kansas GOP politics, who once held the First District seat, joined Twitter in June and promptly called Huelskamp out.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the First District congressional race in Kansas,” read the Dole tweet. “I would suggest the current congressman focus on the issues rather than misleading attacks on his primary opponent.”

Huelskamp had the backing of the National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life, Kansans for Life and the endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, who won the Kansas presidential primary in March.

But in a sign of just how split the GOP was on Huelskamp, Cruz’s top political aide, Jeff Roe, a Kansas City-based Republican consultant, assisted a super PAC that spent $1.1 million to defeat Huelskamp.

Another big Marshall backer was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $400,000 on TV ads in the days leading up to the primary.

“Governing was on the ballot in KS-1 and voters spoke clearly,” Rob Engstrom of the chamber said in a release Tuesday night.  “For those leaders who fight for the American free enterprise system and economic freedom, they will find no greater friend.”

Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at Harvest Public Media and based at KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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