DODGE CITY, Kansas — It was a scene out of 1950s Americana: Tim Huelskamp waved to constituents at a parade in this old cowboy town, smiling as his sons handed out bubble gum and campaign fliers urging a vote on Tuesday for the Republican congressman — a “Proven Principled Conservative.”
But the niceties on display last weekend belied a ferocious intra-Republican feud unfolding here in Kansas’ sprawling 1st Congressional District. Residents of the onetime stomping grounds of Wyatt Earp have been bombarded with competing TV ads and mailers, blasting Huelskamp as an ineffective troublemaker who’s lost his sway on critical agricultural issues. They’re urging voters to replace the Freedom Caucus member with Roger Marshall, an obstetrician running for office for the first time.
What’s resulted in “the Big First,” as locals in the rural 63-county district call it, is an unlikely, multimillion dollar proxy fight this summer between some of the most powerful interests in the Republican Party. Outside conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, have swooped in to try and save Huelskamp in Tuesday’s primary, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Ricketts family’s “Ending Spending” group are spending big to send the three-term congressman back to Kansas.
The showdown has flipped the script on GOP warring in recent election cycles. Often it’s been an establishment-friendly incumbent scrambling to fend off a primary election challenger from the right. This time, it’s one of the most uncompromising conservatives in the House — a man who instigated John Boehner’s ouster as speaker and has bucked GOP leaders time and again on major votes — ironically being attacked as a D.C. insider and fighting for his political life.
Huelskamp’s critics back in Kansas say his “rigid” conservative ideology and unwillingness to work with his own party have deemed him ineffective. Three years ago, he was kicked off the House Agriculture Committee for spurning party leadership, in what is now, by far, his biggest vulnerability in the race. Marshall, conversely, is pitching himself as a pragmatic Republican who would give farmers a voice in Washington.
“I’m not voting for Washing-Tim,” quipped one man at a barbecue cook-off, directly quoting an ad paid for by the Ricketts-backed group. “Huelskamp I always felt was for the farmer, but I’m not sure he is anymore,” said another voter said as Marshall passed by in the parade.
It’s unclear how close the race is due to limited polling, but one early Julyhad Marshall up 7 points. (Marshall says his internals have them tied.) But there’s no question both sides see it as winnable: Almost $3 million in outside money has flooded the district; the spending is tilted, by a margin of several hundred thousand dollars, in favor of efforts to defeat Huelskamp.
“You have a million and a half against me — they’re trying to buy this election,” Huelskamp told POLITICO. “I think it’s a testament that I’m making a difference in Washington, otherwise all these insiders wouldn’t be so upset.”
Indeed, many GOP insiders in Washington are privately hoping he loses.
“Most lawmakers work to get to ‘yes’ to promote a cause — Tim Huelskamp works to get to ‘no’ to promote himself,” said a former leadership aide with knowledge of Huelskamp’s interactions with senior lawmakers.
Huelskamp’s campaign in recent days has sought to bolster his army by getting big-name conservatives involved, including TV-radio personality Sean Hannity, who told viewers “we really want to help him." An appearance by Huelskamp on Mark Levin’s show Thursday drove some money his way, too, the congressman said.
Fellow members of the Freedom Caucus, the group of House conservatives known for blocking Republican bills they view as too accommodating, have also traveled to western Kansas to campaign for Huelskamp in the homestretch. They transferred about $20,000 from their own campaign coffers to boost his spending efforts, a caucus source said.
Marshall dismissed the conservative visitors as a desperate search for a lifeline. “I think it’s really telling: I’m traveling the state with the Kansas Farm Bureau president; he’s traveling the state with Washington insiders,” the challenger said. “What does that say? He can’t get anyone from Kansas to stand up for him.”
Huelskamp, in turn, is attacking the outside interests backing Marshall. Over the weekend, "Ending Spending" bought full-pageacross the district saying Huelskamp has “embarrassed himself, and our state.”
“I think a lot of people are upset that these groups from Washington, who couldn’t really care less about the farm bill, didn’t even make it a key vote, now all of a sudden that’s a key vote to them?” the incumbent said, referring to his controversial vote against the signature agriculture legislation, which conservatives said included too much welfare spending.
But it was the endorsement of a powerful local organization that made it apparent that Huelskamp had a race on his hands. The influential Kansas Farm Bureau’s backed Marshall in early July, a signal to the incumbent’s other critics that there would be a credible campaign to defeat him.
Marshall, a 55-year-old former Army Reservist-turned-doctor who says he’s delivered more than 5,000 babies, is the vessel for discontent with Huelskamp. He is well-spoken and friendly, insisting on giving a city-slicker reporter a tour of Dodge’s cattle museum and the historic Boot Hill Cemetery, where several famous gunfighters were buried in the 1880s.
But many paradegoers said they didn’t know the political novice well, if at all — a potential danger sign for him heading into Election Day.
“Marshall’s just gon’ be another lapdog for the RINOs [Republican in Name Only],” said 46-year old Mike Strodt, a small farmer donning a cowboy hat and holding the reins of a horse hitched to a prairie schooner. As for Huelskamp’s controversial vote against the farm bill? “I’m fine with that because most of the farm bill is food stamps.”
Other farmers feel Huelskamp — who defeated a crowded field in a 2010 primary to win the seat, replacing the more moderate Jerry Moran, now a senator — has prioritized ideology over their needs.
Ford County Sheriff Bill Carr said he’s known Huelskamp “my whole life.” But the loss of the Agriculture Committee seat — Kansas had been represented on the panel for at least a century prior to that — is no small matter, he said. Carr said he also wants more financial support from Washington for local police and mental health initiatives, something he’s not sure the budget-slashing lawmaker would back.
“I’m getting a sense that a lot of people are tired of the same old people,” Carr said. “They want new blood. … We’re all feeling the crunch.”
Loyalists to Huelskamp disagree, calling him a fighter unafraid to challenge the status quo.
“The only reason he got kicked off the Agriculture Committee is because he would not vote the way those idiots up there wanted him to vote,” said Lawrence Hall, a retired police officer.
Huelskamp and the House Freedom Caucus leaned on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in early July to publicize a promise they said he made last fall: That he would back reinstalling Huelskamp on the Agriculture Committee next year. Ryan’s office declined to do so.
Huelskamp has parried attacks on the agriculture panel issue by playing up his conservative bona fides. During a visit to the district last week, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told Huelskamp’s constituents about their recent efforts to impeach the IRS commissioner. (Some voters seemed unmoved.)
The congressman is also trying to make abortion an issue. He has pointed out that Marshall belongs to a doctors’ association that endorses Planned Parenthood. Huelskamp is endorsed by the National Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion rights group.
“Dr. Roger Marshall says he’s pro-life, but supports pro-abortion groups that back Planned Parenthood and Hillary Clinton,” says one of Huelskamp’s TV ads.
Sipping a Coors Light inside the Long Branch Saloon, Marshall dismissed the criticism, saying he has to be part of the group — the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — or he can’t practice as a physician. He says he’s against abortion, boasting that he’s one of only two doctors in the Sunflower State who is recommended by the American Association of Pro-Life OB/GYNs.
He said Huelskamp is trying to change the subject from farm issues: “He wants to make this race about anything but agriculture.”
Marshall is feeling so confident that he took Sunday off from campaigning. On Monday, he plans to deliver a baby, and he’ll spend Election Day in the office.
Asked about the outside money pouring into the district, Marshall shrugged.
“I don’t know what to think … it’s probably a net-zero,” he said. “I hear lots of people saying we’re sick of it. You know: I’d rather take that money and pay off the national debt.” At the same time, he added, “I’m grateful for their support.”
Huelskamp, for his part, is confident he’ll hang on.
“I’m a congressman that comes home every week,” he said, noting that he’s done more than 372 town hall meetings since taking office. “That’s kinda hard to beat that when someone from Washington come in like the Chamber or the Ricketts family, whoever they are.”
“At the end of the day, I’m a fifth-generation farmer,” Huelskamp added, and among voters, “that beats an OB/GYN.”