Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Center for Responsive Politics.
On a boiling afternoon in downtown Augusta, Mike Pompeo has finally rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt and loosened his tie as he visits stores and businesses along State Street.
A man on crutches passes him on the sidewalk outside the Brick Street Bake Shoppe, then stops to shout back at the congressman he has just recognized: “Are you doing a good job for Kansas?”
Pompeo halts, turns and smiles at the man.
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“I’m trying every day,” he shouts. Then he walks back to the man to formally introduce himself and find out what’s on his mind.
On the other side of the 4th District, Todd Tiahrt, wearing blue jeans, black boots and a red knit sport shirt bearing a logo with a “T” and a heart, climbs the stairs of the Stafford County courthouse in St. John. He pokes his head into offices on every floor and introduces himself to anybody he can find on a weekday morning.
A clerk brightens when she recognizes him and walks toward him with her hand out.
“Well, how are you doing?” she says.
“I’m fair to partly cloudy,” Tiahrt replies as he extends his hand. They both chuckle.
In courthouses and coffee shops all over the district, Pompeo and Tiahrt greet strangers warmly and try to charm voters as they campaign for the Republican primary election.
But when they stand before audiences, their message is the same: Don’t send the other guy back to Washington, D.C.
Tiahrt tells the audience at a town hall meeting in St. John that Pompeo has lost touch with Kansas residents by becoming part of a system in Washington that is all about money while aviation companies and jobs disappeared from the district.
At a forum in Augusta, Pompeo calls Tiahrt “a big-government Republican” who wants to take money from the district to Washington and return some of it in the form of earmarks for certain projects selected by politicians rather than leave the money at home and let locals decide what to do with it.
It’s a bitterly contested race and one that flips the national narrative about GOP primaries upside-down.
Instead of a longtime incumbent facing a challenge from a relatively unknown tea party outsider, the challenger in this race has spent more time in Congress than the incumbent has. Tiahrt served the district for 16 years, then left to wage a losing campaign against Jerry Moran for the U.S. Senate. Pompeo won the House seat when Tiahrt left and has served for four years.
The winner of the GOP primary on Aug. 5 will take on Wichita Democrat Perry Schuckman in the November general election.
Both candidates came to office riding the crest of the conservative revolution of their era – Tiahrt as part of the Newt Gingrich “Contract With America” movement in 1994, Pompeo with the tea party revolution in 2010 – but evolved into fundamentally different camps on federal spending.
Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, says he often thinks of the two candidates in terms of their ages. Tiahrt, 63, is part of the baby boom generation, while Pompeo, 50, is on the cusp of Generation X.
“There’s two very different kinds of mindsets that each one of them comes in with,” Rackaway says.
The battle over earmarks, defined broadly as legislation that allocates money for a specific project or organization, symbolizes those differences.
Tiahrt, who served on the House Appropriations Committee from 1997 until he left office, says earmarks directly serve the district. He proudly ticks off a long list of projects that he was able to secure though the process: flood projects for Arkansas City and Augusta, railroad overpasses for downtown Wichita to improve emergency vehicle service, construction of a taxiway at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, an instrument landing system for the Independence Municipal Airport and millions of dollars over the years to grow the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University.
In his final year in office, Tiahrt sponsored or co-sponsored 39 earmarks totaling $63.4 million to rank 40th out of 435 House representatives, according to opensecrets.org, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest earmarks went to McConnell Air Force Base and aviation companies, such as Hawker Beechcraft, Boeing and Cessna, as well as Envision and Wichita State.
Tiahrt calls this approach “re-prioritizing the federal government’s money.”
And, he says, it wasn’t easy to do.
“You had to fight bigger states with bigger delegations. You had to be persuasive and persistent,” he says.
Pompeo calls earmarks “an old-school Washington vote-trading practice.” Although earmarks were banned by the House in 2010, he fears their return.
Kansas loses out, because larger districts get most of the earmarked money, he says, while the government grows as the projects grow, and everybody spends everybody else’s money.
“I find that abhorrent,” Pompeo says.
He says his approach is to work to cut spending and pass legislation that streamlines government regulations to encourage investment and job growth.
He cites his Small Aircraft Revitalization Act that was signed into law last year as well as his work on a bill to speed federal approval for natural gas pipelines. That bill passed the House and is pending in the Senate. It would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve applications for pipelines within 12 months and would require other agencies to approve related permits within 90 days.
Pompeo likes to point out on the campaign trail that he has moved those bills in only 42 months in office, while Tiahrt, in 16 years, passed two post-office namings. One, at 9350 E. Corporate Hill Drive in Wichita, was named for former 4th District Rep. Garner Shriver; the other, in Derby, was named for Sgt. Jamie Maugans, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2002.
Tiahrt says his contributions came through amendments and working with agencies.
His tea party credentials have always been strong, he says.
“I was tea party before there was a tea party,” Tiahrt says. “I haven’t changed. Washington has changed.”
Tiahrt’s approach could offer a new model of conservatism if he is successful against Pompeo, says Bob Beatty, a Washburn University professor.
Conservatives in Congress currently are popular in their districts even if they are willing to sacrifice pork for their constituents as the price of fighting government spending, he says. Tiahrt is essentially arguing that he can bring home the bacon and be a tea party figure, Beatty says.
“If Tiahrt does well or wins, we have to go back to square one,” Beatty says.
Arguing over aviation
Their differing approaches extend to Wichita’s critical aviation industry.
The city suffered a stunning loss when Boeing announced in 2012 that it would close its local facility after 85 years. Hawker Beechcraft took Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2013 and emerged as smaller company. It was sold in March to Textron, Cessna Aircraft’s parent company.
Layoffs and job outsourcing took place at Wichita’s general aviation companies during the recession that started in late 2008. That market has not returned to its former glory, although the commercial aerospace business in Wichita overall is strong.
Tiahrt blames Pompeo for the lost companies and lost aviation jobs. Pompeo calls that “a desperate claim” and pulls out a letter praising his efforts on behalf of aviation signed by a host of current and former aircraft executives like former Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture; former Cessna CEO Jack Pelton; Cessna chairman emeritus Russ Meyer; Larry Lawson, CEO of Spirit AeroSystems; and Scott Ernest, CEO of Textron Aviation.
Pompeo says the loss of aviation jobs started while Tiahrt was in office, and since then, remarks by President Obama about business jet owners have done “enormous destruction to the industry.”
According to the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State, aerospace employment in the Wichita metropolitan area peaked at about 46,500 in 1998. By 2004, that number had fallen to 32,200.
It climbed back to 41,100 in 2008, the center’s figures show, then lost nearly 11,000 employees by 2010 during the recession.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said politicians, including Obama, played no role in the aviation industry’s problems in Wichita.
“It’s like saying the mayor of New York was responsible for a drop in the New York Stock Exchange,” Aboulafia says. “Both of these people are grasping at straws.”
The industry was clobbered by the credit collapse and economic downturn, he says.
Pompeo says his Small Aircraft Revitalization Act, which adopts new certification regulations to reduce the cost of aircraft and avionics upgrades, will lead to jobs. It passed the House without a single “no” vote and was signed into law by Obama in November.
Tiahrt says the legislation started long before Pompeo thought about it. It came from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which had been pushing for it since 2011.
Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the association, wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle that Pompeo has had ongoing discussions with GAMA and its manufacturers.
“After a government-industry group of 150 technical experts spent 18 months examining how to make the FAA’s certification process more effective and efficient, Congressman Pompeo carefully reviewed their findings,” Bunce says in the e-mail. “Recognizing that the expert group’s recommendations were critical to the future of general aviation, he introduced legislation, the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, to direct the FAA to implement the group’s recommendations by December 2015. The fact that the legislation was one of just 72 bills that Congress passed and sent to the President in 2013 speaks to its importance and necessity.”
Tiahrt says he would try to pass temporary accelerated depreciation for aircraft sales in order to boost sales.
Through the windows of his tan 2004 Ford F-150 pickup during a recent campaign tour to the western part of the district, Tiahrt points out the crops – corn on the left, soybeans on the right. He recalls stacking 25,000 bales of hay in a summer and walking 150 acres of bean fields.
Tiahrt grew up on a farm in South Dakota, and he uses his agricultural background to connect with the rural portions of the district.
Town hall meetings that offer informal settings and a chance to get to know constituents are important to Tiahrt. He knows that only a handful of people are likely to show up for a town hall meeting at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in St. John, because most are working. But he heads out for the drive enthusiastically.
“It’s important you go out and listen to them, because that’s how you understand the challenges that they’re facing,” he says.
Pompeo, who grew up in Orange County in southern California, credits his time in the military and at West Point for shaping his approach to leadership. Particularly formative were the three years he spent as an Army captain in the armored cavalry toward the end of the Cold War, leading patrols along the East German and Czech borders.
The patrols had to follow an imaginary line between poles spaced at 30-yard intervals, he says, and any deviation at night could bring trouble. Soldiers had to train nine months for the duty.
Pompeo often uses the term “mission” to refer to goals such as trimming government and moving legislation.
“I am absolutely willing to grind to get something done. It may not always be so flashy, it may not look pretty, but if there’s a mission, I will be absolutely relentless in making sure that mission focus is there and we get as close as we can every single day,” he says.
The candidates’ public personalities reflect the operational norms of the Congress they served, Rackaway says.
“Tiahrt was part of the go-along-to-get-along, you-gotta-make-deals Congress, so there’s a lot of personal interaction and schmoozing to do,” he says. “But now that you don’t have that, there’s not as much need to put up that veneer. So it might seem like to Pompeo a waste of time to put on airs. ‘I got a job to do, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad.’ ”
The men have clashed over claims made against each during their debates and in their television ads, and their race has taken a mean-spirited turn toward charges of bullying, which unsettles other Republicans.
Asked about some of the charges, Kansas Sen. President Susan Wagle says, “Republicans are in the midst of a family feud that has moved from the kitchen out into the streets. I would prefer to keep my conversations with both candidates private.”
Pompeo says he stays in touch with the district by coming home to Wichita every weekend that he can. He leaves Washington on Thursday afternoon and returns on Monday morning.
He and his wife, Susan, tried living in an apartment in Washington for the first year and a half or two, he says, but she prefers to stay in Wichita, so they got rid of it.
During the week while Congress is in session, Pompeo lives and works out of his office, as about half the House members do, he says. He sleeps on a roll-out bed and showers in the House gymnasium. There is a touch of Kansas in his mode of transportation around the city: He drives a 2004 Yukon oil-field truck with an “Eat Beef” license plate on the front bumper.
When he returns to Wichita, he visits small businesses and high schools. He’s about halfway toward meeting a goal of visiting every high school in the district, he says.
His office in the Equity Bank building at Rock Road and Kellogg receives 500 to 600 phone calls and e-mails weekly. Pompeo says he runs his office like a business. He conducts performance reviews and has an accountability system for mail and e-mail operations. Staff members are trained to help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy, he says, noting that a woman who identified herself as a liberal Democrat walked up to him once and praised his office for its service.
“I drive my team very, very hard,” Pompeo says. “Not everybody would want to be part of a team that is focused and is willing to grind away every single day.”
Pompeo, who finished No. 1 in his class at West Point, thought he’d remain in the Army for a long time, but the military began drawing down after the first Gulf War, and the Army was trying to get captains to leave, he says. It offered him a program to train as an attorney and return, but the program was canceled, he says.
In the process, he was accepted to law school at Harvard.
Pompeo says the decision to leave the Army was difficult.
“I still miss the camaraderie of being part of the Army,” he says.
As a military officer, he says, he learned how to get all his men to wrap their minds around the same mission, a skill that helps him in Congress.
“This is not for the faint of heart. This is not for folks who like to play golf. This is not for folks who like to spend their time in Virginia. This is for folks who are working every waking moment to get these things done,” Pompeo says.
Tiahrt, who still owns a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., says he resents Pompeo for bringing up the ownership during the campaign.
When a woman at a town hall meeting in Greensburg questions him about it, Tiahrt says he bought the house in March 2005 as a place for his family to gather and heal after the suicide of his 16-year-old son, Luke, the previous year.
He says he paid too much for it and now can’t sell it. He has considered renting it out, he tells the woman, but it has too much history.
“So I just eat it,” he says, “and I have to tell you, it’s a pretty big payment.
“It’s all extremely personal, and I’m very emotional about it,” Tiahrt says.
Thursday was the 10-year anniversary of Luke’s death. Tiahrt says in an interview that after 10 years, a wave of grief can still sweep over him unexpectedly, even when he’s speaking to crowds.
“It’s something I’d never wish on my worst enemy and something that I’ve had to live with, and I resent people who try to take advantage of that terrible tragedy,” Tiahrt says. “What kind of person does that?”
Pompeo says he refers to the house because Tiahrt has accused him of not coming back to Kansas and being out of touch with constituents. He feels he must point out that he has to come back because he doesn’t have a house in D.C. Tiahrt was the one who lived in Washington, he says.
Pompeo says he isn’t critical of Tiahrt’s decision to live in Washington while Tiahrt was a congressman. But in 2010 when he left Congress, Tiahrt kept his house in Virginia to lobby in Washington on behalf of clients who received earmarks from him, Pompeo says.
“He chose to continue to lobby and work in Washington,” Pompeo says. “He was trading on relationships that were created with taxpayer money.”
Tiahrt responds by saying, “There’s no proof of that. I didn’t do that.”
Tiahrt says he came home to Wichita after leaving office and started Todd Tiahrt LLC, which he describes as a consulting company that offers advice to companies about how to deal with federal agencies.
“That’s not lobbying,” he says. “I’ve never been a lobbyist, I’m not a lobbyist today. That’s a dishonest charge.”
Endorsements and money
Tiahrt says he feels like the outsider in the race, a David competing against a Koch-funded Goliath.
Although both men are social conservatives who oppose abortion and champion gun rights, it is Pompeo who has been endorsed by the large pro-life organizations and by the National Rifle Association.
The Kansans for Life Political Action Committee joined the National Right to Life Political Action Committee in endorsing him. He also has been endorsed by the Family Research Council Action PAC.
Tiahrt says pro-lifers in the district still support him for his long involvement in anti-abortion activities and his support of pro-life legislation.
Mary Kay Culp, state executive director of Kansans for Life, says the organization has an endorsement process that all candidates understand.
“We promise candidates when they are elected that if they stick with us, we stick with them and give them sole endorsement in the next election,” she says.
Pompeo is a perfect 14 of 14 in pro-life votes, she says.
Tiahrt benefited from the same endorsement process when he was in office, Culp says.
More than 100 pro-lifers in Wichita held a rally at Tiahrt’s campaign office in west Wichita recently, where one speaker called him “the real deal when it comes to pro-life.”
Tiahrt reminded the crowd that he was pro-life before it was popular, before the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita.
He is endorsed by the Kansas Republican Assembly, a conservative group.
The NRA endorsement went to Pompeo because the organization has an “incumbent-friendly policy” when the incumbent is a good supporter, says Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokeswoman.
“Both are supporters of the second amendment but Pompeo is the ‘A’ rated incumbent so he gets the endorsement,” she said in an e-mail to The Eagle.
Tiahrt was endorsed under the same policy when he was in office, she says.
And although Tiahrt received the financial support of Koch Industries while he was a congressman, the Wichita company threw its financial might behind Pompeo for this election, citing his belief in the free market, small government and less spending.
Tiahrt calls it “circling the wagons” to protect the incumbent.
“They want the best legislation money can buy,” he says. “They’re good businessmen.”
Koch was Tiahrt’s largest financial contributor from 1993 until he left the House, giving him $328,766, including $84,328 in PAC money, according to opensecrets.org. Boeing, Textron, Raytheon and the United Parcel Service rounded out the list of top five career contributors.
Tiahrt received $3.7 million overall from political action committees when he was in the House, according to the website.
Koch has been Pompeo’s top contributor since he started campaigning in 2009, giving him $239,900, including $30,000 from its PAC, according to the website. Textron, Mull Drilling, McCoy Petroleum and Ritchie Exploration have been his other top contributors.
Since 2009, Pompeo has received $1.8 million from political action committees.
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week, Pompeo held a huge cash advantage with $1,865,167 in the bank for this race. Tiahrt, who just started raising money in the past quarter, had $124,576 on hand.
Pompeo had received more than $200,000 from political action committees in the past quarter and was closing in on $1 million for the race. Tiarht had not received any donations from political action committees.
While Pompeo has Koch behind him, Tiahrt has maximum donations from Willis “Wink” Hartman and his wife, Elizabeth “Libba” Hartman, who each sent Tiahrt checks for $2,600.
Wink Hartman, who fought a heated campaign against Pompeo in the 2010 GOP primary before finishing third, has spent $134,000 to defeat Pompeo this time through his Kansans for Responsible Government single-candidate super-PAC. Hartman is the main contributor to the fund.
Tiahrt says he has had no input on the PAC’s anti-Pompeo media ads.
Citizens Bank chairwoman Jane Deterding filed a complaint with the FEC last month over the PAC. A friend and supporter of Pompeo, Deterding has said she believes that Hartman is inappropriately funneling money to Tiahrt’s campaign using state Sen. Michael O’Donnell, Hartman’s marketing director, as a go-between. O’Donnell has called the allegations “completely baseless and false.”
The FEC acknowledges receiving the complaint but won’t reveal its status.
Those who study the horse-race aspect of politics say Tiarht has a difficult, but not impossible, task to defeat Pompeo.
“Pompeo hasn’t given these conservative groups reason to dislike him,” says Kyle Condik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “There’s this natural impulse to support the incumbent unless he’s done something they don’t like.”
Statistics favor Pompeo. Less than 2 percent of incumbents who run for re-election lose their primaries, Condik says. Still, he says, there hasn’t been a lot of polling on this race, and there aren’t many tea leaves to read.
“There’s not really any indication that Pompeo would lose,” Condik says, “but if he did, one wouldn’t necessarily be shocked, either.”
Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, says the priorities of the base of the Republican Party have changed fairly dramatically since Tiahrt was in office. Right now it feels passionately about less government and less government spending, which has become a line in the sand in Washington, he says.
That could hurt Tiahrt, he says.
“He has to give primary voters a reason to fire their congressman, and I don’t know if there’s enough there for him to do it,” Gonzales says.
Rackaway, the political science professor at Fort Hays State, questions whether Tiahrt can fit in with the new way of doing things in Washington.
“All the mechanisms by which Tiahrt could get things done are gone,” he says. “Now the culture is shut the government down if you have to, but you don’t compromise on these things, you fight. That’s going to be a hard, hard thing for a congressman like Tiahrt in 2015 to adapt to.”
Tiahrt disputes that and says he can still be effective in Washington.
“People are still people, and the issues are still the same,” Tiahrt says. “I know how to get things done. I know the system and how it works, and I know how people think.”
While the earmarking ground rules have changed, he says, “Those agencies are still delegating funds. It’s a little more indirect, but you work through the agencies.
“It’s different now,” Tiahrt says, “but it’s not unusual.
“If I don’t win,” he says, “I’ll go back to what I was doing. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
Pompeo says he doesn’t know where the line is that a politician crosses to become a “career politician.” Length of service is a mindset, he says.
“My goal is to achieve the mission that I told folks I would go work on in 2009 and 2010 – a federal government that runs a balanced budget, that is much smaller, that has a regulatory footprint that isn’t being incredibly job-destructive – and when I get that done, I cannot wait to get back into the real world,” he says.
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle