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House Conservative Faces Primary Peril in 2016

Huelskamp is a Kansas Republican. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Huelskamp is a Kansas Republican. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of the House’s top troublemakers could be in trouble in 2016.  

Kansas conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp has angered fellow Republicans with his politics and personality in Congress. If he chooses to seek re-election in 2016 , some of his detractors see an opportunity to oust him for good in a primary.  

This year, Huelskamp’s primary challenger, Alan LaPolice, held the congressman to a 10-point primary win — with the help of some outside spending on the tyro’s behalf. Huelskamp’s opponents saw that as an indication of discontent with the two-term House Republican — and an opportunity.  

In 2016, Kansas Republicans say, the congressman will have a far more credible primary opponent. What’s more, the campaign against Huelskamp, according to one person involved in challenging him this year, will likely be more organized and could start as early as next year. “We’re not worried about 2016 in terms of that,” Huelskamp told CQ Roll Call after a Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol basement last week, when asked about a primary challenge. “I think we did very well. We were outspent in our primary.”  

Republicans have discussed several possible challengers to Huelskamp.  

They mention Garrett Love, a 26-year-old state senator who has had a meteoric rise in Kansas politics, on top of the list. Love ran for the state House while in college, defeating a 12-term former majority leader in a primary. Almost immediately after Love was sworn in, he jumped to the state Senate, winning the race to fill Huelskamp’s seat when he was elected to Congress.  

Kansas political observers said Love has the fundraising ability to compete with an incumbent. What’s more, a source close to Love said he is considering a congressional bid. Love did not respond to several requests for comment.  

Republicans also mentioned Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN from Great Bend, as a potential candidate.  

“I’m not ruling it out,” Marshall told CQ Roll Call when reached by phone last week. He said “several people” had contacted him about mounting a bid.  

Tracey Mann, a real-estate businessman who lost to Huelskamp in the 2010 primary, is another potential contender, Kansas political operatives said. Mann did not respond to several requests for comment.  

Republicans have also mentioned David Kerr, a former president of the state Senate. But Kerr definitively ruled out a run.  

“I don’t think that’s in the cards, no,” he said.  

Whoever challenges Huelskamp, Kansas Republicans expect he or she will have the support of Cecil O’Brate, the wealthy energy businessman who put up a quarter of a million dollars to oppose Huelskamp in the primary this year. O’Brate declined to comment for this article.  

A major concern for Huelskamp opponents will be whether they can whittle the field to one credible challenger. When Huelskamp was first elected in 2010, he cut a path to victory through a crowded field of six primary contenders. His opponents worry that if more than one credible candidate challenges him in 2016, they could split the vote and the congressman will coast to re-election.  

Even if there is just one challenger, he or she could have an uphill climb this year. Huelskamp has never lost a primary challenge in the state of Kansas. He is also working to mend fences with at least one of the major interest groups that did not back him in 2014.  

The Kansas Farm Bureau, along with several other agricultural interest groups, refused to back Huelskamp, who does not support the renewable-fuel standard. He also lost his seat on the Agriculture Committee after tangles with House leadership. The 1st District is rural, and agriculture interests play a massive role.  

But this year, Huelskamp says he expects to have a better relationship with the Kansas Farm Bureau, which will have a new president.  

“I’ve met with all the candidates [for farm bureau president] privately and we’re working together with them,” Huelskamp said. “You know, I just stood up in conference and talked about the Waters of the U.S. rule, which is the No. 1 Farm Bureau priority. I’m the only one who spoke up.”  

Huelskamp, a darling of the conservative movement, might also get reinforcements in 2016. This year’s closer-than-expected call put the congressman’s conservative allies on notice.  

“Huelskamp, from our vantage point, is one of the most principled conservatives in the House of Representatives,” said Tim Chapman, Heritage Action’s chief operating officer. Heritage Action focuses on policy, not electoral politics, but, Chapman added, “It’s discouraging to see that kind of target be placed on him, but we sure hope that he keeps leading, and we’ll obviously do everything we can to shine a light [on his work].”  

Some of Huelskamp’s supporters argue this year’s close primary was because his supporters — and perhaps his own campaign — did not realize the size of the threat posted by LaPolice’s allies.  

“There wasn’t much of a race that was run,” said Kansas state Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Huelskamp backer whose district is inside the congressman’s congressional territory. “When Congressman Huelskamp has an opportunity to … defend his record … he’ll come out of that a winner.”  

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