That proved costly for the third-term congressman on Tuesday, as he lost the GOP nomination to continue representing Kansas' largely rural 1st District to Roger Marshall, a political newcomer who had the backing of powerful farming and business groups.
The contest was unusual because GOP primary challengers usually accuse incumbents of being insufficiently conservative. Marshall, an obstetrician from Great Bend, cast himself as a conservative willing to reach across the aisle, saying after his win that he wasn't sure the House Freedom Caucus would even have him. He will be the heavy favorite in November, when he'll square off against only an independent challenger — the Democrats aren't fielding a candidate.
The primary contest, which Marshall won with 56.5 percent of the vote, became a proxy battle between GOP conservatives and pragmatists. The anti-tax Club for Growth spent $400,000 to help Huelskamp and members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus campaigned for him. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Ending Spending Action Fund, which wants to curb federal expenditures, spent big dollars against him.
Marshall cast Huelskamp as too unyielding and combative, saying his clashes with Boehner and others had hurt the district. After Huelskamp lost his seat on the Agriculture Committee in 2012, farm groups turned against him, and many voters saw it as a crucial issue in their farming state.
"Getting kicked off the Agriculture Committee is a crime that can't be forgiven," Brian Scheideman, a 52-year-old driver's education instructor, said after voting in his hometown of Wamego for Marshall. "I don't mind the independent voice, but you've got to figure out how to work with people."
Marshall credited his win as "all about agriculture," and he won the endorsements of the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, among other groups.
Huelskamp, who received 43.5 percent of the vote, blamed his loss on $3 million of super PAC money that went to support his opponent.
"Half-truths and smears were spread by billionaires that bought a seat in Kansas," said Huelskamp, who is from the small southwestern Kansas community of Fowler.
Huelskamp built a reputation by clashing with GOP leaders over farm and budget legislation. He was a vocal critic of Boehner and his supporters argued that he gave his conservative, safely GOP district an independent voice.
"I think he has a better record than what he is given credit for," said Doris O'Neal, a 76-year-old Hutchinson homemaker who voted for Huelskamp. "If you listen for reasons he voted as he has, I think you will find he is doing the best he can for Kansas."
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, issued a statement Wednesday decrying the result, saying Huelskamp has stood up for the values of those he represents and has consistently said "no to 'business as usual' in Washington."
"In an ugly and dishonest campaign, Tim's record was attacked and misrepresented by big money special interest groups who wanted to exact their revenge," Jordan said.
Both candidates raised more than $730,000 for their campaigns — a healthy sum for Kansas — but Marshall loaned his campaign more than $360,000, including $80,000 just four days ahead of the election. Interest groups also spent more than $2.8 million on the race, with Marshall benefiting significantly more.
With no Democrat running, Marshall will run in November against independent Alan LaPolice, a farmer and educator from Clifton who ran for the GOP nomination in 2014 and lost a closer-than-expected race against Huelskamp.
Huelskamp is one of only a few House members to be ousted during this year's primary season.
Rep. Renee Ellmers fell to fellow North Carolina GOP Rep. George Holding, and Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes also lost, victims of court-ordered, redrawn district lines. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., was defeated in April after his indictment on federal corruption charges. He was later convicted and quit Congress.
In other Kansas races, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in the 3rd District in the Kansas City area cruised to easy GOP primary victories over lesser known opponents. U.S. Reps. Lynn Jenkins in the 2nd District of eastern Kansas and Mike Pompeo in the 4th District of south-central Kansas had no opponents in their Republican primaries.
John Hanna reported from Topeka, Kansas.
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