By August, Rep. Tim Huelskamp could become the rare tea-party-backed congressman to lose a primary in a conservative district—or he could be unexpectedly saved by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Three years after he was yanked from the House Agriculture Committee, the Kansas Republican landed a spot last month on the powerful panel in charge of committee assignments, which was reorganized by the new speaker. Already one of the House’s most vocal internal critics, Huelskamp has a newfound level of influence.
The question is to what extent that will help in his sprawling Kansas district, where Republicans say he is facing his toughest primary yet.
“Right now, it is a truly contested primary,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. He gives Huelskamp a slight edge, “but I wouldn’t call this one decided by any stretch.”
Roger Marshall, a physician, has outraised the incumbent in each of the past two fundraising quarters. Also running is Alan LaPolice, who lost to Huelskamp in the 2014 primary by a margin of less than 8,000 votes. That put the congressman's conservative allies on notice while stoking opponents’ optimism that he's ripe for defeat this time.
After the 2012 elections, Huelskamp, who has long been known as a GOP rabble-rouser, was stripped of his assignments on both Ag and the Budget Committee after voting against Ryan’s budget proposal, among other things. Farming is a top priority in his rural district in Western Kansas—a seat previously held by both current senators, Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, as well as Bob Dole in the 1960s.
The three-term congressman says he’s now confident he will regain his Agriculture post by the next Congress, but it may be too late. Marshall has already locked up the support of one key agriculture group, the Kansas Livestock Association, which refused to endorse Huelskamp last cycle.
“There’s a general feeling in Kansas agriculture that we don’t want to have one more farm bill without having a voice in the community,” said Aaron Popelka of the Kansas Livestock Association.
The influential Kansas Farm Bureau also stayed out of the 2014 race after Huelskamp angered farmers by voting against the farm bill that year. Warren Parker, director of the bureau’s policy communications, said concerns linger about Huelskamp but it’s too early to speculate about whom the group will endorse. Its recommendation is expected in the spring or early summer. The primary is Aug. 2.
In an interview with National Journal, Huelskamp, who was raised on a farm and holds a Ph.D in political science with a focus on agriculture policy, defended his record on agricultural issues and said he believes he will return to the committee on his own terms.
“I’m not going to back down from protecting Kansas farmers,” Huelskamp said. “I am not going to give up my voting card. I’m worried about the [Environmental Protection Agency], rather than the endorsement of groups back home.”
Huelskamp won a spot on the House Steering Committee in December after Ryan created six new at-large seats. He is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which pushed for former Speaker John Boehner’s resignation and called on Ryan to return the House to regular order and alter the way committee assignments are doled out—and taken away.
Despite Huelskamp’s new position — he was also named chairman of a House Small Business subcommittee Friday — and the possibility that he returns to the Ag Committee, his opponents say it hardly matters.
“We didn’t have a voice when we had him on there,” LaPolice said.
Marshall campaign manager Brent Robertson said, “While Huelskamp has been playing politics in D.C., Roger has been working back home.”
Huelskamp retains a notable but shrinking advantage in the race. Marshall outraised Huelskamp in the second and third quarters—and contributed about $84,000 of his own money—but Huelskamp had $700,000 in cash on hand to Marshall’s $192,000 and LaPolice’s $13,000 as of Sept. 30. Fourth-quarter figures are due to the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 31.
A chief concern among the anti-Huelskamp camp is its ability to coalesce around a single candidate. LaPolice said he has been approached about dropping out, but he declined to provide further details.
The Now or Never PAC, which spent nearly $234,000 opposing Huelskamp in 2014, said it won’t invest this time around. But some Republicans say the donors from that effort could still channel their money to a different outfit willing to target him again.
The major funder behind Now or Never, Cecil O’Brate, has given $2,500 to Marshall's bid. O’Brate "will continue to support Dr. Marshall through the duration of the 2016 campaign," his spokesman H.J. Swender said.
National Review reported recently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may also include Huelskamp among its top targets, with senior political strategist Scott Reed calling Marshall an "impressive candidate" but emphasizing the group had made no decisions about the race. Marshall has met with the chamber, his campaign said.
The Kansas chapter of the Chamber of Commerce counts Huelskamp as an ally. “He’s been great for us to work with,” said Eric Stafford, the group’s vice president of government affairs.
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth are also watching the race closely and say they’re prepared to help Huelskamp as needed. FreedomWorks PAC endorsed Huelskamp in September, and its independent-expenditure arm spent $47,000 the following month on a TV ad in support of Huelskamp.
While it’s Huelskamp’s combativeness that led to his committee banishments, supporters in the state say it’s that style that will ultimately serve him well.
“Incumbency comes with a lot of advantages,” said Republican state Rep. J.R. Claeys, who plans to endorse Huelskamp. “Not to mention, when it comes to election time, and politicians make campaign promises, Congressman Huelskamp did exactly what he said he would do.”
Kimberly Railey is an editorial fellow for National Journal Hotline. Prior to joining National Journal, she covered Congress at the Washington bureau of The Dallas Morning News. She has also written for The Boston Globe, USA TODAY, and The Christian Science Monitor. Originally from South Florida, she graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of The Daily Northwestern.