It was the question that sparked applause at an eatery here in Leonardville, Kan., (pop. 449).
Could the congressman please explain what the House Freedom Caucus is, and how it’s benefited the state?
That set off a passionate response by Rep. Tim Huelskamp, the Republican who represents the vast First District of central and western Kansas. Elected in the tea party wave of 2010, he’s proud to belong to the hard-line Freedom Caucus, whose nearly 40 members helped drive Speaker John Boehner into early retirement last month.
Representative Huelskamp described the caucus as conservatives who have been “punished,” “marginalized,” or “verbally attacked” by the Washington establishment, and who seek a greater say in how the House is run. He held himself up as Exhibit A: He says he was kicked off the Agriculture Committee in 2012 “because I didn’t vote the way the speaker wanted me to vote.” He was also kicked off the Budget Committee.
It’s the first time in more than a century that the Sunflower State has been without a member on the powerful “ag” committee. But to supporters of Huelskamp, his exile looks like a badge of honor. When he delivered his big line at the Leonardville eatery – “I work for you,” not the speaker – the crowd clapped with robust approval.
Darn straight the congressman works for them. He’s doing exactly what many of his constituents want – standing up against the establishment, sticking to his guns. For instance, he’s voted against the various bipartisan budget and fiscal deals that have pulled the country back from the brink of shutdown or debt default. The deals weren’t stringent enough. They didn’t defund Planned Parenthood.
“I’m proud of Tim,” said Chris Tawney, meeting at a table with a few of her tea party friends after the town hall meeting. “He said from the first day he was elected where he stood on issues, and he has stayed there.”
In Kansas, as in the tumultuous House, the divide within the GOP is less over policy and more over tactics. Talk to Republicans in “The Big First” district – about the size of Illinois and among the 20 most Republican districts in the United States – and you’ll hear over and over that most of them agree with the conservative views of Huelskamp.
It’s his unwillingness to compromise that divides them.
GOP critics argue that the ideological rigidity of the right wing – both its politicians and its backers – has had a destructive effect on US government. Punching far above its weight, the tea party movement and those sympathetic to it have taken the country to the financial brink several times, triggering a partial government shutdown in 2013. This year, they ousted Mr. Boehner.
Perhaps recognizing this, national support for the tea party movement has dropped to its lowest point ever, according to Gallup. Last month, 17 percent of adults said they favor the movement, compared with 32 percent at the peak five years ago.
Indeed, two GOP candidates are challenging Huelskamp, campaigning against his obstructionist tactics. The congressman faced no such competition in 2012. Two years later, appalled that Huelskamp was again running unopposed in the primary, a political novice jumped in – and took 45 percent of the vote on a shoestring budget.
“A lot of people are expecting a backlash to the tea party,” says David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the independent Cook Political Report. But, he says, “I don’t see it coming yet.”
This movement is not the backing-down type. Here in the crossroads towns of rural Kansas, Huelskamp supporters are just as mad as they were five years ago – perhaps more so because, in their view, nothing has changed.
Washington isn’t heeding their cry for fiscal reform. The president, they say, is getting away with executive-order overreach. They rebel against federal regulation – whether it be “Obamacare,” new rules about water oversight, or protection for the lesser prairie chicken.
If anything, “Huelskamp needs to raise his voice a little louder,” says Marla Landis of Abilene, Kan., who drives a school bus. Her biggest worry is that she’ll leave her grandchildren to a country that’s no longer America – its Judeo-Christian values unrecognizable, its balance sheet stained red.
If it takes another government shutdown to wake people up, she says, so be it: “I think that’s the only way anyone is going to pay any attention.”
Four tea party friends
Chuck Henderson has ambled over to the restaurant table at Nelson’s Landing in Leonardville where three of his tea party friends are talking to a reporter. He’s a member of the Flint Hills Tea Party, his red athletic jacket sporting the group’s emblem.
“It’s not that we can’t do math,” he jumps in, answering a question about the futility of trying to pass conservative legislation when Democrats have blocking power in the Senate.
Despite the GOP takeover of the Senate in last year’s midterms, Republicans still don’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. And it takes two thirds of both chambers to override a presidential veto.
Mr. Henderson understands all that. What galls him and others at the table is that it looks as if Republicans aren’t even trying to fight for what they believe in. Last year, they “folded like cheap tents” on budget and immigration issues, he says.
Republicans in Congress have “a mountain to climb. We get that. But we won’t get there if we don’t take the first step,” says Henderson, who lives in Manhattan, Kan., home to Kansas State University.
Illegal immigration is Henderson’s top issue. The mechanical engineer grew up in southern California and got to Kansas “just as quick as I could.” Americans lost jobs to undocumented workers in California, and that has since spread in “orders of magnitude” across the country, he says. Add criminality on top of that, and sanctuary cities to that, he says.
It’s an issue that affects schools and health care. “Its tentacles are everywhere, and our politicians are just dithering,” Henderson says.
Each person in the small group has a concern that they lay at the feet of President Obama – abuse of the Constitution, education mandates, and a “handout” society and Obamacare.
But they are just as angry with establishment Republicans, among them Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. These Republicans campaigned on false promises, the group says. They promised to repeal Obamacare, roll back environmental regulations, and stop “executive amnesty” for immigrants if voters would only hand them the Senate in addition to the House.
“What it boils down to is they lied to us,” says Sylda Nichols, a retiree from outside Leonardville. The Senate is no different under Senator McConnell than it was under Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, she says.
Larry Tawney, Chris’s husband, agrees. “I think we’ve had our fill of their empty promises, and I think the presidential election will reflect that.”
This little group has no interest in presidential candidates like Jeb Bush or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the latter of whom Henderson says fell for amnesty. They like the outsiders – Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (yes, they consider him an outsider).
The friends talk among themselves about being up on the issues. Indeed, they’re in regular e-mail contact with Huelskamp’s office, which usually sends a quick reply. They’re concerned about the political apathy of other Americans. “People need to wake up,” Mr. Tawney says.
Ms. Nichols chimes in. “But every time we try to talk to people, they say, ‘You’re those radicals!’ ”
A driving tour of Marysville
Huelskamp is sitting in the passenger seat of a black Lincoln Navigator SUV. The driver is Don Landoll, founder and president of Landoll Corp., which manufactures farm and transport equipment in Marysville, Kan., a town of about 3,300 not far from the Nebraska state line.
Marysville has long been a hub for the Union Pacific Railroad – and for more than 50 years it’s been home to Mr. Landoll’s company, which employs 850 people.
Landoll wants to give the congressman a driving tour before heading to his state-of-the-art factory. As he starts out, he passes the new hospital. It couldn’t have been built without federal dollars, he says. The congressman asks him about the kind of care available there.
Farther along the tour, they pass the expanded municipal airport. “A lot of federal help has gone into that airport over the last 10 years,” Landoll comments. Huelskamp wants to know where the doctors who work at the hospital fly in from and where patients are flown to.
As they head toward his factory, Landoll mentions that an expressway over multiple railroad tracks required big government dollars and that the airport access road is thanks to a federal grant that employed 30 people. “I don’t know that there’s that kind of money hanging around now,” he says.
A little later, the congressman has an opportunity to learn just how much Landoll and his company have poured back into the community. They’ve contributed serious money to the hospital, airport, and more.
Landoll’s passenger may be famous for his rigid stand for small government and belt-tightening in Washington. But the reality is that rural Kansas depends heavily on the federal government.
If there is a backlash against Huelskamp, it is likely to come from the business community, which is often agriculture-oriented, says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“These people are pretty sophisticated,” Professor Loomis says. “They have to deal with farm subsidies. They make big investments in farm equipment. If you are surviving as a business in western Kansas, you’ve got to have something on the ball. The question is, how far does this [no-compromise stance in Washington] go before they say, ‘We can’t do this anymore’? ”
The Kansas Farm Bureau did not endorse Huelskamp – a farmer – in 2014. It didn’t like his opposition to several key issues, including the farm bill; renewable fuel standards for biofuels, including corn-based ethanol; and funding for transport improvements on major waterways.
The day before his tour of Marysville, Huelskamp was about 90 miles south, visiting Abilene Machine, a family-owned business just off of Interstate 70.
The company sells new and used tractor parts. As the congressman took a tour through graveyards of expired yellow, green, and red tractors and combines, he reminisced about driving a John Deere 6600 combine on his family’s farm.
Part owner Kenny Roelofsen explained the business and its challenges. But he didn’t say what he later told a reporter: that he wished Huelskamp were more open to compromise.
“I believe in a lot of what he says, I really do,” says Mr. Roelofsen, a young Republican who that night would moderate a panel discussion on the future of the GOP. “But I think it would be very beneficial to the Republican Party to compromise a little bit. Compromise is the art of politics.”
A 2016 primary race under way
Two Republicans are saying “enough already” to hardball tactics. The one who jumped into the primary in 2014, Alan LaPolice, is running again. Mr. LaPolice is a student-retention specialist at Cloud County Community College in Concordia. Last quarter – his first quarter of fundraising – he raised $14,500. Huelskamp, by comparison, raised $63,700, and has $700,000 in his war chest.
At a GOP event in Abilene last month, LaPolice, a combat veteran, complained that hard-liners in Congress such as Huelskamp don’t represent him. “All they do is fight. They obstruct.”
Also running is Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN in Great Bend who has held just about every community leadership position imaginable – from coaching the kids he delivered as babies to serving on hospital, bank, and church boards. He was also a captain in the Army Reserve.
Dr. Marshall outraised Huelskamp last quarter with $151,465, though he’s not even close to matching the congressman in total funds. In an interview, Marshall characterizes Huelskamp as a “professional politician” who doesn’t represent Kansas. “He’s part of the left and right yelling at each other so much that we can’t get anything done.”
Mr. Wasserman, at the Cook Political Report, recently met Marshall. Wasserman was impressed. But that doesn’t change his view that two opponents in a primary will give Huelskamp the edge.
And so Huelskamp – for now – continues to ride a wave of anger over issues that most Republicans in his state agree on. Next year’s primary will help answer the bigger question over tactics.