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In Kansas, Republican romance with tea party sours (+video)

A shift in thought

The resounding defeat of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who rode to Congress on the tea party wave of 2010, was part of a statewide shift toward more pragmatic Republicans in Tuesday's primaries.

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    Rep. Tim Huelskamp (r.) of Kansas answers a question during a debate in Hutchinson, Kan., with his Republican primary challenger, Dr. Roger Marshall (l.)
    Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News
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In Kansas, the Republican romance with the tea party movement has soured.

In a significant upset on Tuesday, Republican primary voters in the vast western and central part of the state chose the promise of consensus-building over a record of cantankerousness.

They ousted Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who rode to Congress on the tea party wave of 2010 and became a leading voice for the movement on Capitol Hill. Instead Kansans backed Roger Marshall, a well-funded obstetrician who has never held elective office.

Mr. Marshall, too, is a conservative, nearly indistinguishable from Congressman Huelskamp on the issues. But Marshall constantly emphasized his ability to work with others, pointing to his background as a physician and a community leader on hospital, bank, and church boards.

At the same time, he blamed his opponent’s rigidity and hostile relationship with the GOP leadership for getting him kicked off of the all-important House Agriculture Committee in 2012. It’s the first time in more than a century that the Sunflower State has not had a member on the powerful “Ag” committee. 

In Kansas, where farm subsidies are key, you don’t mess with agriculture.

Shift toward pragmatism

The official tally of votes shows Marshall beating Huelskamp by 57 to 44 percent (the total exceeds 100 due to rounding).

Tuesday’s results show voters in Huelskamp’s district returning to their traditional GOP roots, says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Those roots produced Republicans such as Robert Dole, Pat Roberts, and Jerry Moran – conservatives who all went on to become senators, and who also know how to make a deal, says Professor Loomis.

“These are conservative, traditional Republicans, but they see a role for government,” he said of Huelskamp’s predecessors. “They know that government can help them in various ways.”

In Tuesday’s primary, Kansans backed a string of more pragmatic Republicans in primary races for the state legislature. It was a stinging rebuke to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who was also elected in 2010. He cut income taxes across the board, completely eliminating them for all independent businesses. Revenues plummeted, services have been cut, and the state’s credit rating has taken a beating – as has the governor’s approval rating.

"I think the tea party movement has taken its course, and you’re getting a rise of almost a moderate" in the GOP in both Kansas and the nation, says Kenny Roelofsen, marketing manager for a tractor-parts company in Abilene. 

Huelskamp's six years in Washington are more of an aberration than a trend-setter for his district, which is among the 20 most Republican districts in the country, Loomis says.

 In 2010, Huelskamp emerged from a crowded primary field of Republicans fighting for an open seat. He ran unopposed in 2012. Two years later, Alan LaPolice, a political novice who was appalled by Huelskamp’s obstructionist tactics, jumped in. With a shoestring budget, he took 45 percent of the vote.

This year, Loomis says, Huelskamp has faced “a really significant, well-funded one-on-one race” for the first time.  Both candidates raised more than $700,000 for their campaigns, according to the Associated Press, but Marshall loaned his campaign nearly $300,000.

Outside groups also played a huge role in this race, spending more than $2.7 million, the Associated Press reports – but Marshall was the bigger beneficiary. All the major farm groups as well as the US Chamber of Commerce backed him.

“Governing was on the ballot,” said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director, in a statement Tuesday. “Voters spoke clearly.”

Impact on tea party movement

It’s hard to say how Huelskamp’s defeat will affect the tea party movement, now embodied in the feisty House Freedom Caucus, which has nearly 40 members, including Huelskamp.

In recent years, Republican incumbents have feared being “primaried” by such anti-establishment politicians, who have been willing to shut down the government in their quest for less of it. Last year, they forced House Speaker John Boehner into early retirement – with Huelskamp among those who led the charge.

This time, the roles were reversed. Incumbent Huelskamp has been primaried by a professed pragmatist, but on an issue of particular importance to the state’s vast farming community. That may not translate to other states. Indeed, only two other Republican incumbents, both from Virginia, have been defeated so far this year – both due to court-ordered redrawn voting districts.

Backbone, or absolutism?

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Huelskamp, who has so vigorously fought against pork, has been punished for not bringing home the bacon, says Ronald Rapoport, who tracks the tea party at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.  He expects to see more challengers like Marshall in the future.

But that firm stance against bloated budgets is exactly what appealed to a Republican such as Ted Pugh, vice president of Dickinson County Bank in Enterprise, Kansas. That Huelskamp refused to vote for budget deals backed by the GOP leadership, or that he was bumped from the Ag committee for his stances – well, Congress needs more of that backbone says Mr. Pugh.

“We’re trillions of dollars in debt and he’s the only one [taking a stand]. If anything, we need more Tim Huelskamps voting the same way.”

Absolutism, however, gets Kansans nothing, counters Travis Sawyer, a financial advisor in Abilene and an acquaintance of Mr. Pugh.

“The frustration is Huelskamp is almost standing for things just to stand for them,” says Mr. Sawyer, who voted for Marshall. He says he would rather a legislator take 45 percent of a deal than insist on getting 100 percent. He points to Huelskamp’s vote against the farm bill as an example. The congressman objected because the bill did not have strict enough work requirements for food stamps.

“There’s a feeling that we’re leaving some legislation or some things that are good for Kansas on the table, just because we’re not getting everything,” says Sawyer.

In November, Marshall will face Mr. LaPolice, who is running as an independent, as well as a Libertarian candidate. No Democrat is running.

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