Comeback bid pushes Tiahrt left

Greg Nash

How did a former congressman with a perfect score from several national conservative groups become one of their top targets?

That’s the question underlying former Rep. Todd Tiahrt’s (R-Kan.) primary challenge against Rep. Mike Pompeo, which has drawn loud opposition from the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, two groups that backed Tiahart in the past.

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AFP has spent more than $409,000 on radio and television ads attacking Tiahrt, and the American Chemistry Council invested another $165,000 to derail his comeback bid. The former nine-term member of congress lost a 2010 primary election to now-Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and Pompeo succeeded him in the House. 

Ahead of next week’s Aug. 5 primary, Tiahrt has gotten support from a super-PAC backed by oil magnate Wink Hartman, to the tune of about $220,000. He’s been heavily outspent and had just $65,000 cash on hand as of July 16, to Pompeo’s $1.6 million.

That influx of cash is despite the fact that Tiahrt received a 90 percent score from the Club for Growth in 2009 and a 100 percent score in 2010, as well as top ratings from other conservative groups, like FreedomWorks and the National Right to Life Committee. 

But Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, said his score wasn’t real evidence of Tiahrt’s conservatism, but rather inspired by his run for Senate in 2010. 

“We look at somebody’s entire record. It’s not a surprise that in a Republican primary, both Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran voted for a pro-growth agenda — but that doesn’t mean they’re allies in economic freedom,” he said.

Though the Club hasn’t yet spent any money on the primary, Keller said the group is “continuing to monitor the race,” suggesting a last-minute expenditure could come if it sees a need.

And there may indeed be a need for it: A nonpartisan poll out earlier this month showed Tiahrt narrowing Pompeo’s lead down 7 points and Pompeo taking just 46 percent support.

Pompeo released an internal survey conducted just after that poll that offered a contrasting take, giving him a 21-point lead. But Tiahrt believes the outside spending indicates the race is tighter than expected.

That outside money, and the groups’ reversal on his conservative credentials, has given him fodder for one of his most potent attacks. Tiahrt has been making the case to voters that Pompeo is beholden to outside interests, while he’d represent Kansans in Congress.

“This race is about the people of Kansas versus the big money in Washington. I think they want somebody who will represent them,” the former congressman told The Hill.

Tiahrt speculated the conservative groups turned on him because, “I would never carry their water. Mr. Pompeo would go ahead and sell out to them.”

Pompeo’s campaign manager, Jim Richardson, dismissed Tiahrt’s attacks as “desperate,” and slammed him for his support from traditionally Democratic groups.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Tiahrt is so desperate to get back to Washington, he’ll say just about anything to get headlines. That’s why he’s reversed previous positions and now has the support of groups supported by government unions, radical environmentalists, Common Cause and MoveOn.org,” Richardson said, pointing to the campaign finance reform group Every Voice, which is funded by a handful of liberal-leaning organizations and has launched ads against Pompeo in the race.

“That’s likely because he’s taken the liberal left position on [genetically modified organisms,] national security, and spending, and has attacked Koch Industries, a Kansas job creator, the same way [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry Reid has,” Richardson added.

But Tiahrt’s biggest problem in the race may be his own reversal: He endorsed Pompeo twice before, leaving Kansans scratching their heads when he announced his bid.

Some in the state speculate he’s running to set himself up for a future statewide bid. Others believe it amounts to an act of political retribution against the congressman, encouraged largely by the oil magnate behind the pro-Tiahrt super-PAC who lost a primary challenge to Pompeo in 2010.

Tiahrt said that he hasn’t “really spoken with Wink.”

“I don’t know what he’s really doing about this race. But Mr. Pompeo’s made a lot of people mad in this district, and I’m sure Mr. Hartman’s one of them,” he added.

He’s running, he said, because he realized “Pompeo’s gone Washington on us.”

But Kansas political observers say Tiahrt hasn’t articulated a convincing rationale for his bid, and that’s the primary reason he remains the underdog heading into Election Day.

As David Kensinger, Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) former chief of staff, put it, there’s no clear reason for voters to switch.

“It’s the principle of, ‘you like what you have, so keep it.’ Tiahrt’s had trouble with that from the beginning,” he said. “You can like your old car, after getting a new car, but why are you getting rid of the car you have now?”

Kensinger suggested because he’s had trouble making a convincing case to voters on why they should send Pompeo home, Tiahrt has taken an unusual tack in the race. 

He’s running to the left of the congressman and focusing on issues that don’t normally come up in a GOP primary, like the labeling of genetically modified food. 

Pompeo has introduced legislation that would allow the federal government, rather than state governments, to regulate that labeling, a move that’s drawn opposition from liberals and Tiahrt, who says the measure was simply “a bill to satisfy his contributors.”

Kensinger said the GMO focus seems like a long-shot: “You end up talking about stuff like that in the last two weeks of the campaign if you haven’t articulated a clear rationale at that point.” 

Tiahrt has also defended his record on earmarks, one of the things that’s drawn him the ire of conservative groups. 

But he’s seized on at least one issue in the race to tack to the right: Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner’s position as Speaker. Tiahrt said he wouldn’t support Boehner for Speaker because “we need to get our Republican House in order” and Boehner has failed to do that.

“Congress is a train wreck, and all Congress is doing is taking pictures of the train wreck and selling those pictures for money,” he said.

—This piece was corrected to reflect the fact that Every Voice did not in fact endorse Tiahrt, but aired ads in the race.