WASHINGTON ― One of the biggest winners from the departure of ex-Speaker John Boehner is now one of the few losers in the 2016 primary season.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) became just the third Republican this year to lose a primary, falling Tuesday night to Roger Marshall, an obstetrician who argued he’d be a more reasonable and effective lawmaker for Kansans. Marshall’s win all but guarantees he’ll represent the safely Republican district next year.
Huelskamp, during his three terms in Congress, developed a prickly reputation for regular dissent on GOP bills, and for two votes to oust Boehner. Huelskamp was an original member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a rambunctious group of roughly 40 conservatives who are often at odds with Republican leadership.
While Huelskamp’s loss is a blow to the Freedom Caucus, his primary race was more than just a generic GOP conservative-vs.-establishment contest.
Huelskamp was kicked off the Agriculture Committee at the end of 2012, in retaliation for voting against Republican legislation, including the budget of then-Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). His absence on the Agriculture Committee became an issue in his farm-heavy district.
But Huelskamp appeared to have outlasted that issue when Boehner resigned in October.
One of the concessions conservatives won from Ryan when he took over as speaker was a shakeup of the Steering Committee, the panel that decides which members serve on which committees. Huelskamp, who feuded often with Boehner in the media, became a sort of conservative representative on the Steering Committee, positioning himself to get back on the Agriculture Committee next year.
But Huelskamp couldn’t survive long enough. His style as a congressman who voted his conscience put him at risk in a primary in the previous election cycle, when he defeated Alan LaPolice by fewer than 8,000 votes.
Some of the same issues that LaPolice used against Huelskamp in 2014 ― voting against the farm bill in 2013, being too much of a rabble rouser in Congress to be effective for Kansas ― became issues in the 2016 race.
Huelskamp contended numerous times that he was punished by GOP leadership for voting his conservative conscience, first by losing his seat on the Agriculture and Budget committees in 2012, and then by being passed over for a subcommittee chairmanship on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Voters in Kansas seemed to notice that retaliation, too.
Meanwhile, the victorious Marshall was helped by outside money in the waning days of the primary campaign. The Chamber of Commerce dropped $400,000 on the race, half in support of Marshall and half in opposition to Huelskamp. Other groups also came in with large sums of money, though Huelskamp ― supported by the conservative Club for Growth and the Koch Brothers group Americans for Prosperity ― actually had the money advantage.
Huelskamp, who came to Congress 2010 in the tea party wave, was chairman of the Tea Party Caucus. While he’ll be remembered as a member of the Freedom Caucus and for two coups against Boehner, his loss is a blow to conservatives inside and outside of Congress.