This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
They came north from McPherson and south from Cloud County. East from Hays and west from Topeka.
From the far-off reaches of Kansas’ 1st Congressional District, representatives of the state’s agriculture interests met on a recent July morning in a small storefront in Salina, making history.
“You drove all this way,” said Roger Marshall, “you have to get your photo taken!”
The event was a circling-the-wagons endorsement for Marshall, a political newcomer and obstetrician who is challenging GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Kansas Farm Bureau — one of the state’s most powerful political and business groups — gave its nod to an outsider over the guy it helped put in office in the first place.
Because there’s no Democrat in the race, the Aug. 2 primary could settle this battle for the western Kansas seat before the general election. There is a Libertarian candidate to meet in November, but many are betting on Marshall.
“The entire Kansas agriculture community has risen with one voice to say, ‘Enough. Enough of the political games,’” Marshall said. “They’ve risen to support our team because the clarity of purpose, to restore our representation, our reputation and influence over federal farm policy.”
Marshall, 55, has traveled to 50 of the Farm Bureau’s counties and will have the support of the group, which counts 40,000 members, said Stacey Forshee, a Kansas Farm Bureau board member.
“Kansas Farm Bureau believes that we need honest representation and a strong leader in Washington, D.C., someone willing to listen to our concerns and actively participate in making the agriculture industry stronger,” Forshee said.
Huelskamp, 47, who won his seat in the tea party wave of 2010, is now fighting for his political life in what’s called “the Big First,” a 60,000-square-mile area that covers 63 Kansas counties, two time zones and has more cattle than people. Huelskamp’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“A lot of our frustrations, honestly, started with no representation on the Ag Committee,” Forshee said.
Huelskamp lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee in 2012, pushed out by then-Speaker John Boehner because Huelskamp didn’t back GOP leadership. Huelskamp retaliated, helping lead the “Freedom Coalition,” which ousted Boehner last year.
The move made Huelskamp a tea party darling but created fallout in farm country. Marshall, a Great Bend physician, is keeping up with Huelskamp’s fundraising, thanks in part to his own money, and the latest poll shows the race is too close to call.
At stops out on the campaign trail, Huelskamp has said that he will get his seat back on the Ag Committee. But House Speaker Paul Ryan has remained mum on the issue.
Huelskamp failed to do what most young congressional members do — keep their heads down and learn the ropes, said Joe Romance, an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
“That is not Huelskamp’s personality, and it’s not the personality of the tea party group who want to go in there and shake things up,” Romance said.
Many voters in this conservative district say they are still aligned with Huelskamp’s social beliefs — opposition to abortion and gay marriage, support of gun rights. And he has some key endorsements, including the anti-tax Club for Growth and Koch Industries, home of the Wichita conservatives who, with a $10,000 campaign donation, are among his top donors.
But many of the farm and ranch groups have tired of the “selfish agendas and me-first attitudes,” said Katie Sawyer, an agriculture advocate who farms with her husband in McPherson County.
“I want a congressman who won’t be met around every corner with closed doors and burned bridges,” Sawyer said.
The farm groups also are angry that Huelskamp hasn’t supported one of the state’s biggest projects, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, the Department of Homeland Security’s billion-dollar animal disease research facility being built in Manhattan. Another problem for them is Huelskamp’s vote against the 2014 Farm Bill, which offered farmers protections in the form of crop insurance.
— Peggy Lowe, investigations editor at Harvest Public Media, is based at KCUR.