Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight

Two major conservative donor groups are lined up on opposite sides of an unusual primary fight to save or destroy the Washington career of Tea Party-aligned Rep. Tim Huelskamp.

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In a development that has mostly escaped the attention of the national news media, the conservative donor network led by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch is facing off against some of its usual allies in what would ordinarily be an obscure primary for Kansas’s rural 1st congressional district.

On the side dedicated to defeating Huelskamp in his Aug. 2 primary is the ESAFund – a donor group formerly known as the Ending Spending Action Fund that is dedicated to cutting spending and making government more efficient.

They're opposing Huelskamp for voting against the farm bill and for being kicked off the Agriculture and Budget committees. 

Huelskamp, who came to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave, was no friend of GOP leadership or of former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Freedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority MORE, leading to clashes with leadership and the revocation of committee assignments.

ESAFund, which has already spent more than $600,000 opposing Huelskamp, is backed by donors including leading members of the Koch donor network such as New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, and the Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs.

Also lined up against Huelskamp is the agriculture lobby, including the Kansas Farm Bureau.

On the other side of the fight, dedicated to defending Huelskamp against his primary challenger, physician Roger Marshall, stand fiscal conservative groups including the Club for Growth and the Koch network. 

The Kochs’s private company, Koch Industries, a separate entity from the Koch donor network, is headquartered in Wichita, Kan.

Huelskamp and Marshall are currently in a virtual dead heat in their primary race according to a new poll, which means the battle between these conservative groups is set to escalate over the coming week.

“I don’t know who is behind [the ESAFund], I’ve heard different rumors about it, but Mr. Singer and the Ricketts family have been good partners of ours in the past and in the present as well,” said Mark Holden, a top Koch network official, in an interview with The Hill on Sunday.

“I totally am mystified by Ending Spending and their point of view,” he added.

“I just wonder who could be better on the issues that a group like Ending Spending, I mean their whole name … who could be better on these issues than Tim Huelskamp?

“If you believe in fiscal responsibility, fiscal conservatism, the proper role of government, particularly on these economic issues that I’m talking about and that our network is focused on; we don’t know of anyone who’s better than Tim Huelskamp.”

The president of ESAFund, Brian Baker, said he believed the Koch network "knows exactly who Ending Spending is given we've been around since 2010 and have met with representatives of the Koch network, including Mr. Holden, in the past."

Huelskamp has unimpeachable fiscal conservative ratings with the Club for Growth, which gives him a 100 percent lifetime rating, and with the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which gives him a 98 percent lifetime score.

But not all Republicans agree that his record is conservative. 

Huelskamp opposes Republican House leadership so much that he often finds himself voting with Democrats.

The National Journal reportedly judged him the most liberal member of the Kansas delegation in 2014, a judgment that shocked the local news media.

Baker, argues that Huelskamp has been an ineffective advocate for conservatism since arriving in Congress in 2010. 

Baker said Huelskamp “utterly failed” Kansans by being kicked off the Budget committee and, especially, the Agriculture committee – a crucial and long-held post for Kansas representatives given how big a business farming is across the state.

“First, Congressman Huelskamp is a 20-year career politician with little-to-no accomplishments who has basically abandoned the people of Kansas in pursuit of his own interests,” Baker told The Hill.

“Worse, he is a so-called 'campaign conservative' -- he campaigns as a conservative, but once he gets to Washington, he regularly hands control of the House over to Nancy Pelosi and other liberals by his obstructionist actions.”

Still, Holden said he’s puzzled about why ESAFund is branding Huelskamp as “Washing-Tim” in their commercials given he’s been nothing but a thorn in the establishment’s side since arriving at the Capitol.

Huelskamp “took a tough vote” against the farm bill - which consists mostly of food stamps and which Holden says is filled with cronyism - and he was so forcefully opposed by BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse Dem: Party's aging leaders is 'a problem' Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Freedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority MORE that he was booted off the Agriculture committee.

Baker disagrees that such stances were either principled or conservative.

“By opposing the House Republican budget, all Huelskamp did was ensure the government spends more money and removed the ability for conservatives to try and limit the power of the Obama Administration."

Baker also pointed out that Bob Dole, the former congressman who represented Huelskamp’s district for years, had lumped Huelskamp in a group of “Republican naysayers.”

“ESAFund is proud to support Dr. Roger Marshall, a conservative doctor and former Kansas Wildlife Commissioner, because we know he will work to actually deliver for Kansans,” he concluded.

Some Republicans observing Huelskamp’s primary have been privately speculating about whether it’s secretly Huelskamp’s tough line on gay marriage – the left-wing blog Think Progress calls him “the most anti-gay member of Congress” – that provoked the animus of Singer, a donor who’s been trying to push the GOP to be more socially liberal and to embrace gay marriage.

But a person familiar with Singer’s political operation flatly denied that was the case and said Singer had no active involvement in the campaign to defeat Huelskamp, despite being ESAFund's top donor after giving the group $1 million in 2015.

“This race really isn’t on Singer’s radar,” the source said. “To your question about Kochs vs Ending Spending, he’s allies with both.”

Americans for Prosperity [AFP], the grassroots organizing army of the Koch network, is defending Huelskamp through a six-figure spend that’s known as issue advocacy, a source familiar with the group’s operations said.

Issue advocacy is a legal definition that means AFP is not explicitly telling voters to vote for Huelskamp but they’re making thousands of phone calls, canvassing local stores and sending direct mail to promote Huelskamp to his constituents based on his policy positions.

“Congressman Huelskamp has a principled record of voting to rollback spending, end corporate cronyism and protect free speech,” AFP president Tim Phillips told The Hill on Sunday.

“He has stood up to the special interests in Washington, D.C., who always want more government or a two-tiered playing field.

“We are absolutely making sure folks know and can thank him for his good record.”