A Farmer For All Seasons

“We’ve got a real race for state Republican chairman, all right,” Kansas State Sen. Tim Huelskamp told me back in the fall of ‘06.  Over lunch with our mutual friend Matt Lewis—then a Republican political operative and now an increasingly-read blogosphere pundit—Huelskamp mapped out the race and the players.

“Kris Kobach has a base in Topeka, Mike Pompeo has his in Wichita, and I’ve been to just about every county in the state,” said Huelskamp, “And we’re all conservative and all friends.  That’s a good thing about our party in Kansas.  We are pretty much conservative and folks don’t wage personal wars against one another.”

He was right about that.  In the race for chairman in January of ‘07, Kobach emerged the winner.  Huelskamp and Pompeo joined hands with the new party leader and moved on with their respective careers.

“And just look where the three of us are today!” freshman U.S. Representative Huelskamp told me late last month, as he drove his way through the snows of Kansas’ sprawling 1st District to attend one of the fourteen town hall meetings he was holding.  Kobach, known nationally for his efforts to secure photo identification as a requirement for voting, had been elected secretary of state of Kansas the previous November.  Pompeo, Wichita businessman and the Sunflower State’s Republican National Committeeman, was elected to Congress the same day from the 4th District.
For Tim Huelskamp, election to Congress was the triumph of an adult life devoted to conservative ideas and issues.  A farmer from Fowler, Kansas, the young Huelskamp graduatedfrom the College of Santa Fe and later went on to earn a Ph.D in political science from Amreican University in Washington DC.  Elected to the state legislature in 1996, Huelskamp would be in the forefront of just about every conservative cause to come to the lawmakers in Topeka.

Most of the pro-life and the Second Amendment bills were things Huelskamp helped craft.  He earned near-perfect grades from the Kansas Taxpayers Network, taking on fellow Republican and Gov. Bill Graves over proposed spending increases and later dueling with liberal Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius over increasing the size of state government.

With Rep. Jerry Moran relinquishing the 1st District seat to seek (successfully) the Republican Senate nomination, Huelskamp faced four GOP opponents for nomination to the House.  Two of them were decidedly less conservative and both had considerably more money than the Fowler farmer.  But Huelskamp’s years of toiling in the vineyards on behalf of fiscal and cultural conservatism bore fruit.   Ax-the-tax activists, pro-lifers, gun-owners, libertarians, and party conservatives who had known him since he ran for state chairman all weighed in for Huelskamp with endorsements as well as shoe leather.  They sent out e-mails and “snail mail,” walked precincts, held meetings in their homes and helped the conservative hopeful raise more than $200,000, most of it in small donations.

On primary day, Huelskamp topped the GOP field with 35% of the vote.  In November, he won resoundingly and now holds a seat with an historic lineage:  Bob Dole held it from 1960-68, Keith Sebelius (Kathleen’s Republican father-in-law) from 1968-80, Pat Roberts from 1980 until he went to the Senate in ’96, and the Moran until he became senator last fall.

Action on All Fronts

Continuing his drive through the snow to the next town meetings (“They canceled school but not my meetings!”), Huelskamp spoke excitedly about the action he wants to take in Congress on the cultural as well as the fiscal front.

“I was talking about defunding Planned Parenthood in the [state] senate two years ago and it’s time we tried this on a national scale,” he said, adding “This is important to me.”  (The 44-year-old Huelskamp and his wife are the parents of four children, all adopted; Metasha and Rebecca—at 15 and 14, the oldest—were adopted from Haiti as toddlers).

The most-asked question for Republican House freshmen is, of course, whether they will vote to raise the debt ceiling.  Without hesitation, Huelskamp fires back: “It all depends on what’s it in the budget.  Only if we really do something about our culture of overspending—and that includes real health care reform and genuine de-regulation—would I vote for lifting the debate.  Look, everything has to be on the table, including entitlements.  And, yes, I would include a Balanced Budget Amendment in that.”

The Kansan also wants to tackle Medicaid, the premier cause of debt for states.  Recalling how he co-chaired his state’s Medicaid Reform Task Force in ’03, Huelskamp pointed out that “we look at the Health Savings Account Model and other alternatives to a program that was totally administered at the federal level.  And we were ready to proceed with our real reform, but for whatever reason, the Bush Administration never gave us a waiver.” 

Whatever positions Tim Huelskamp takes, no matter how much controversy he engenders or whose feathers he ruffles, it is unlikely he will ever be accused of losing touch with his constituents.  He proudly told me how he returns to Fowler every weekend, conducts meetings, and “ I see how my Dad and brother are doing with a wheat, corn and a lot of cattle on 5,000 acres.

As he has since childhood, Huelskamp still attends weekly Mass at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church in Fowler.  And, he said with a laugh, “I know I must be doing something right when other parishioners see me and say ‘Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we sent you to Washington.”