TOPEKA, Kan. -- All politics is local, except when it isn't.
That's the lesson being learned in Kansas' 1st Congressional District, where tea party-aligned Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) is poised to win re-election despite his quixotic mission to alienate practically every significant person or entity in his political orbit. In a rural and conservative district that hasn't elected a Democrat to the House in over fifty years, Huelskamp's party affiliation alone might be enough to carry him to a third term. But he certainly won't be enjoying the support of some of his party's establishment.
Huelskamp's political difficulties began in 2013 when he was stripped of his spot on the Agriculture Committee for bucking his party's leadership, including by voting against raising the debt ceiling and John Boehner's (R-Ohio) re-election as House speaker. For a rural legislator like Huelskamp, a spot on the Agriculture Committee is a necessary assignment, lest he be relegated to clamoring for influence on farm policy from afar.
Then, in a move that was either incredibly brave or incredibly insane, Huelskamp cosponsored a bill that would phase out a law requiring gasoline to contain ethanol. Many critics on both the left and right contend that the mandate amounts to a wasteful subsidy, and in a district with little to no farming activity, it might have been a sensible, little-noticed position to take. But Kansas' 1st District is the country's 11th-biggest producer of corn, a major source of ethanol gasoline, and home to 11 ethanol plants. It was as if an anti-coal environmentalist had decided to run for office in Kentucky, or a diehard Yankees fan had run in Boston.
Put another way, Tim Huelskamp didn't pour salt on his wound; Tim Huelskamp dumped a truckload of it on the ground, flopped backward onto it, and proceeded to make snow angels.
"If you have a representative who can't promote that agricultural economy, you're in bad shape, regardless if you're a student at Kansas State, a farmer or a retailer," Jim Sherow, the former mayor of Manhattan, Kansas, and Huelskamp's Democratic challenger, told The Huffington Post earlier this month. "You want to pull the rug out from underneath that in one fell swoop?"
In a statement to HuffPost, Huelskamp's campaign brushed aside his reputation as l'enfant terrible of the House Republican Conference, instead saying that Kansas farmers and businesspeople are "tired of Washington politicians and bureaucrats picking winners and losers, usually based on campaign contributions. Instead, it is time to phase out all energy subsidies and handouts. And most farmers do agree -– especially those who raise beef or pork in Kansas."
But Huelskamp's arguments for phasing out the ethanol law haven't soothed Kansas' apoplectic business community. When the political arms of the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association issued their endorsements earlier this year, they didn't endorse Sherow, but they did endorse every major Republican candidate in the state ... except Huelskamp.
"If you're not going to support the renewable fuel standard, what that's going to do to corn prices is pretty dramatic," Sherow said.
There have been other notable defections. During the GOP primary, the tea party-aligned super PAC Now or Never supported Huelskamp's upstart challenger, Army veteran and part-time actor Alan LaPolice. Previously, Now or Never had spent money on far-right candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri, but the group received funding from ethanol producers and businessmen like Tom Willis, who now supports Sherow.
Huelskamp's take-no-prisoners approach has irked a number of his former Republican colleagues in the Kansas statehouse, as well, many of whom lined up to endorse Sherow in September.
"I can remember when [Huelskamp] was still in the Senate and he accosted me on the stairs one day and lit into me," recalled former state Senate President Steve Morris, a lifelong Republican and Sherow supporter. "I said, 'Tim, you and I don't agree on a lot of things but if we could just agree to disagree it'd make things easier.' And he said, 'I don't believe in that kind of thing.'"
But for all of Huelskamp's political liabilities, he'll likely prevail on Tuesday. National Democrats haven't expended any meaningful resources on Sherow's campaign. According to campaign filings with the FEC, Sherow has only a small fraction of Huelskamp's cash on hand, and his skeleton staff is working to coordinate a campaign in a district that is roughly the same size as Illinois.
Huelskamp's situation stands in stark contrast to that of statewide Republicans like Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts, who are facing strong headwinds in their re-election campaigns. Brownback's unpopular record and hard-right agenda has prompted a backlash against other GOP leaders across the state. The 1st District, however, is one of the most Republican parts of one of the country's most Republican states, and the Huelskamp campaign is keenly aware that even their greatest advantage is the (R) behind their candidate's name.
"This is a district where Obama received less than 30% of the vote in 2012," Huelskamp spokesman Travis Couture-Lovelady said in a statement to HuffPost. "And Obama’s policies are on the ballot –- because Jim Sherow’s supports nearly every one of Obama’s liberal policies: ObamaCare, amnesty, anti-fossil fuels, cutting the military, and increasing the deficit."
Sherow acknowledged with a laugh that even if he does pull off an upset, he'd still be a "63-year-old freshman" in an easily poachable seat, but added that he'd hopefully be able to land a spot on the Agriculture Committee.
"I'd love it, though I know I don't make that decision," he said. "Should I get elected, I think even Boehner would want to put me on it."