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Kansas Republicans feel a persistent pull toward the right

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, at 10:41 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, May 12, 2014, at 7:01 a.m.


It looks like the Kansas congressional delegation is moving to the right.

It won’t be easy. Kevin Yoder, Lynn Jenkins, Mike Pompeo and Tim Huelskamp, Republicans all, are already thought to comprise the most conservative delegation in the nation.

But observers from both parties said last week that the potential of tea party primary challenges, coupled with ambition and conviction, may have led the four to conclude it’s impossible to be too conservative in 2014 Kansas.

“That’s exactly what they think,” said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “In Kansas, there’s less and less fighting between moderates and conservatives. Now it’s between conservatives and other conservatives.”

That dynamic has been evident for months on the Senate side, where incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts is responding to tea party challenger Milton Wolf with increasingly conservative statements and votes.

But over the last 10 days of January, conservative state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth said he would challenge Jenkins in the 2nd District Republican primary, in and around Topeka. And former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, also a fixture on the party’s right, refused to rule out a GOP primary challenge to Pompeo in the 4th District in Wichita.

Fitzgerald said his opposition would be based at least partly on ideology — that Jenkins isn’t conservative enough, at least on some issues.

“She’s had some votes, where she has been compelled by leadership, by (House Speaker John) Boehner … that are not good,” Fitzgerald said.

Tiahrt, whose 2010 Senate campaign staked out solidly conservative territory, said he would make an issue of Pompeo’s effectiveness in Congress if he runs.

“We just want somebody who’s going to fight for us,” he said, mentioning ongoing layoffs in Wichita’s aviation industry.

Jenkins and Pompeo are unlikely to face serious Democratic opposition this year. That means their biggest threats, if they develop, will come from the GOP right.

Both have plenty of campaign cash. Jenkins will still be considered a strong favorite. Yet Pompeo might have more difficulty against Tiahrt, who once held the House seat and is well-known in the Wichita area.

Pompeo firmly rejected any claim that he’s vulnerable to a tea party primary challenge, from Tiahrt or anyone else.

“I’m pretty focused on … the people of the 4th District,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things outside of that box.”

Jenkins campaign spokesman Bill Roe also brushed aside any tea party critique of the incumbent.

Jenkins “boasts one of the more conservative records in Congress, consistent with the values of eastern Kansans,” he said in a prepared statement.

Kansas remains a conservative state. A Gallup poll, released last week, showed Kansas voters are more Republican than all but four other states: Idaho, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming.

And the voting records of all four Kansans in the House show a consistently conservative tilt. In 2012, a study by The Kansas City Star showed the Kansas delegation cast the most conservative votes of any state delegation in the country.

But Democrats — and some Republicans — said fears of tea party politics may now be pushing the votes of Kansas House members even more to the right.

On Wednesday, for example, the House considered a final version of the farm bill, a $956 billion, 10-year package of agriculture subsidies and nutrition programs.

Reliably conservative, safe-seat Republicans — including Sam Graves and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, Ted Poe of Texas, Darrell Issa of California — lined up to approve the measure. The GOP leadership in the House recommended approval, as did the American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm lobbying groups.

Yet two groups with strong tea party sympathies, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, denounced the bill. They said they would “score” a vote for the measure as anti-conservative. Conservative bloggers also criticized the measure as bloated, pointing out that it would spend more than $750 billion over 10 years on food stamps.

All four Kansas House members voted no — on what is arguably the single most important piece of federal legislation in Kansas.

Pompeo said it would be “ludicrous” to suggest he cast that vote because of pressure from the right. And in a prepared statement, Jenkins said she opposed the bill because it “costs too much and fails to achieve any significant regulatory reform.”

Huelskamp also said the bill was too expensive. Yoder agreed, and pointed to the opposition of Kansas cattle producers to the final product.

But Democrats claimed the four GOP members opposed the bill because they feared later criticism for supporting any government spending, even farm subsidies that are critical in Kansas. Roberts, who is facing an actual tea party challenger, has said he’ll vote against the farm bill.

“You can’t be tea party enough,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “It doesn’t make for good government.”

Some Republicans pushed back, pointing to measures other than the farm bill. Jenkins and Yoder voted in favor of the recent $1.1 trillion catch-all spending bill, in part because it contained more than $400 million to build a biology research lab in Manhattan.

Pompeo and Huelskamp voted against that measure.

Indeed, not all the pressure facing at least one Kansas incumbent comes from the tea party right. Huelskamp is likely to face at least one GOP primary opponent who considers himself more to the center on most issues.

And some said the farm bill vote, and others like it, may not be directly related to possible tea party challenges this year. Instead, they said, the delegation may be worried about elections later this decade.

And at some point, they said, statewide offices will open up — the Kansas governorship, for example, or a U.S. Senate seat. All four House members may want to pursue those opportunities, pitting them against each other on the primary ballot.

Votes for federal spending, particularly for programs like food stamps, are typically unpopular in GOP primaries.

“They’re playing to the primary electorate,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “They’re thinking about the day they may run against each other.”

Yoder said that theory may give politicians too much credit for advance planning.

“It’s a nice, general parlor game to suggest these grand designs,” he said. “But in reality, politics is a lot more chaotic than we ever want it to be.”

But some longtime Republicans say the ongoing rightward drift of their party, and the splits that has caused, may eventually hurt the GOP brand in Kansas.

“We’ve always been accused of eating our own,” said outgoing Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a Republican who is now aiding some Democratic candidates.

“Now they’re not satisfied with eating up moderates. They have to eat up fellow conservatives, too.

“It’s gotten kind of crazy.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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