The most conservative congressional delegation in America?
Take a bow, Kansas.
It isn’t even close.
Less than two years after Republicans rode a tea-party wave to retake the House of Representatives, a widely quoted survey shows the four-member Kansas delegation — Kevin Yoder, Lynn Jenkins, Mike Pompeo and Tim Huelskamp — has voted far more consistently conservative than any House delegation in the nation.
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A vote study in the National Journal, ranking members on a 100-point scale, put the Kansas delegation’s 2011 conservative score at 85.3.
The next-highest average was Wyoming — where the lone House member, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, racked up a 73.5 conservative score.
South Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee ranked third through sixth, all with average rankings in the 60s.
“That’s staggering,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. “Wow. We really are in unchartered territory in how conservative these guys are.”
The state’s conservatives say the delegation’s numbers are a result of a successful 20-year effort to elect more representatives who mirror the state’s conservative constituents.
And political scientists say the rightward tilt of the delegation is predictable.
“Given the current political setting …it makes sense that these folks would be veering hard to the right,” said Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup.
Some question the National Journal’s rankings, which involve a study of more than 100 votes in 2011. But a similar ranking by a group linked with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, put the Kansas delegation’s conservative average at 79 percent — nipped only by South Carolina, at 80.5 percent. Other state delegations were much farther behind.
And other conservative interest groups, like the Club for Growth and the American Conservative Union, also put Kansas at or near the top.
Some of the findings can be attributed to a quirk in the Kansas delegation: It’s all Republican. Most other states include at least one Democrat, which can pull down a conservative ranking.
But even Nebraska, with an all-Republican, three-member delegation, can’t match the Kansas conservative record. The National Journal gave the Cornhusker state a 68 in its survey, far behind its neighbor to the south.
“Conservatives are waking up and saying there are some really good people in Kansas and people to watch in the future,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political arm of Heritage Foundation that ranked members of Congress for their conservative votes.
Three of the four Kansas House members expressed little surprise at the findings, which they said reflect Kansans’ belief that Washington is out of control.
“We’re all very strong on fiscal issues,” Yoder said. “We’re fiscally conservative.”
“I make no apologies for my top rankings,” Huelskamp said in an email. “But I wasn’t sent to Washington to simply top vote ratings. I was sent there to be a true conservative leader and tackle the out-of-control spending, borrowing, and over-regulating that is plaguing America.”
The National Journal says Pompeo was the 15th most conservative member of the House in 2011. “I actually think that we fit the state pretty well,” he said. “We come from a pretty common-sense, leave-us-alone conservatism that’s a hallmark of Kansas.”
Jenkins declined comment.
But Joan Wagnon, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said the four had moved too far to the right.
“They’re falling in line with that very conservative movement, but people are getting fed up with it,” Wagnon said. “That’s what I hear when people talk to me about who they used to be in support of and no longer are.”
The Kansas conservative House profile, some noted, is driven by another political quirk: Yoder, Huelskamp, and Pompeo are all freshmen. Jenkins is in just her second term.
And like most other newcomers to the House, the quartet’s votes reflect the strong influence of the grass-roots, tea-party enthusiasm in the 2010 off-year election, observers said. Yoder and Huelskamp, for example, voted against the 2011 debt ceiling bill the House Republican leadership supported.
“The tea party was very vocal, made very clear statements about what they are for, and what they are against,” said former GOP Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Wichita. “Republican candidates lined up with what the tea party’s wishes were.”
That stance has served the four members in Kansas well: None appears to face any significant primary challenge in their districts this year.
But their votes have, at times, driven the House Republican leadership in Washington to distraction.
“Absolutely,” Yoder agreed. “They weren’t happy when I voted against the debt ceiling. They’re not happy that we keep pushing them to cut more spending.”
Those votes may make Kansas constituents happy — in an April SurveyUSA/KWCH poll, 43 percent of Kansans self-identified as conservative, 37 percent as moderate and just 14 percent as liberal.
But they carry some risk for the state, political observers said. A far-right voting profile could jeopardize federal spending on a $1 billion bioscience lab in Manhattan, farm subsidies, transportation, flood control, defense and a host of other federal projects in the state.
The fear: House leadership could punish Kansas if its lawmakers stray too far.
“Bob Dole and his brand of traditional Republicanism never looked down its nose at the federal government in providing assistance,” Loomis noted.
Even Tiahrt, who represented the Wichita area from 1995 to 2011, said purely ideological votes might eventually cause problems in the state.
“There comes a point when you have to govern,” he said.
Privately, some Kansas Republicans say Huelskamp is the biggest concern, voting loudly and often against GOP initiatives because he doesn’t consider them conservative enough. They fear the 1st District congressman could lose his Agriculture Committee seat, a disaster in a farm state like Kansas.
In his email, Huelskamp, a former state lawmaker, was defiant.
“My votes in Washington are not based on what the Obama Administration, special interests, the liberal media or other members of Congress might want,” he wrote.
The conservative turn in the Kansas delegation has been building for two decades.
For years the state was represented in Washington by moderate Republicans like Jan Meyers, Nancy Kassebaum and Dole, along with occasional Democrats such as Dennis Moore, Dan Glickman, and Jim Slattery.
And even today, the state’s two senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, are considered more moderate than their House colleagues. Roberts scored 75.5 percent on the National Journal’s conservative index, ranking as the 29th most conservative senator, while Moran finished tied for 30th with a 74.7 percent score.
But many Kansas Republicans have pushed for years for more conservative elected officials. In 1991, a summer of abortion protests in Wichita galvanized many conservatives in the state, and in 1996 then-Rep. Sam Brownback, a well-known abortion foe, defeated Dole’s hand-picked moderate successor in the GOP Senate primary.
In 1998, a conservative challenged incumbent GOP Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate. That challenge failed, but conservatives were on the march.
“It was abortion politics that really started it,” Aistrup said.
The results? A “clean sweep” 2010 Kansas election that saw Republicans easily win all six statewide offices, claim Moran’s Senate seat and win towering majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Now Brownback ranks as one of the most conservative governors in the country and the state’s most conservative chief executive in decades — perhaps ever.
Meantime, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, another of the new conservatives, is making headlines nationwide for his work to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.
“Kansas remains mostly Republican in the 21st Century, but not in quite the same old way,” The Almanac of American Politics concluded this year.
The switch was aided, some Republicans say, by the withdrawal of more moderate Kansans from participation in politics.
“They’re not motivated,” said former state Sen. Dick Bond, an Overland Park Republican who’s regarded as a leading moderate. “They don’t go to the polls.”
Conservatives, however, are motivated, he said, by causes such as abortion, taxes and education.
“The evangelicals and the far-right conservatives have educated their constituencies to be active and involved in the primaries,” Bond said. “And the moderates have gone to sleep.”
Conservatives do vote in Kansas and are expected to play a major role in the state’s politics for years.
That has led some to suggest the House delegation’s conservative 2011 votes include a political component. All four are under 50 and may be considering future statewide campaigns, either for governor or for the Senate.
And as the 2010 primary between Tiahrt and Moran revealed, old votes can be significant campaign weapons: The pair battled over who was tougher on illegal immigration, using earlier votes as TV fodder.
For the record, the current House members say their votes are unrelated to their future ambitions.
“I’m not trying to ‘out-conservative’ anyone,” said Pompeo, who represents the Wichita area. “But I want to be very effective and lead on these important issues.”
Yoder of Overland Park said the idea of running for the Senate one day hasn’t crossed his mind. “It’s not something I wake up and think about,” he said.
The lack of primary opponents — or significant Democratic opposition — hasn’t stopped the four from raising money this election cycle. In mid-April, Jenkins reported $1,097,602 on hand; Yoder, $1,068,725; Pompeo, $884,053, and Huelskamp had $420,101.
That kind of fundraising can scare off potential opponents, although it doesn’t always work. Jenkins faced a GOP primary challenge after her freshman term, from former state Sen. Dennis Pyle, who said she wasn’t conservative enough.
She vastly outspent Pyle, but he won 43 percent of the vote. “Of course she’s going to run scared and hard to the right,” Aistrup said.
Other Republicans say it’s too early to know if the conservative profile of the Kansas House delegation is based on politics, belief or some combination of the two. But it’s likely everyone is keeping a close eye on each other as votes are cast and positions announced.
“There’s always some element of sibling rivalry in any delegation,” said David Kensinger, a leading Kansas GOP strategist and Brownback’s former chief of staff.
But all four are sticking to their principles and coming home on weekends to stay in touch with voters, he said.
“To me, the real question is: Why aren’t more people doing what they’re doing?”