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A Referendum on Earmarks

A curious challenge to a GOP incumbent.

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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By contrast, Pompeo has been a fierce critic of earmarking. In his press release announcing his amendment to shutter the Economic Development Administration, he refers to it as the “Earmark Distribution Agency.” This opposition is not without political costs​—​the economic problems in Pompeo’s district are real. “Boeing and Beechcraft are no longer in business in Wichita,” Tiahrt wrote in a letter announcing his candidacy. “Many will remember the fight I led to overturn the largest defense contract in history when the U.S. government sought to outsource the purchase of air refueling tankers from a French aerospace company. I was saddened when more recently the government outsourced other aviation contracts to Brazil.”

For his part, Pompeo’s office notes that the congressman previously worked in the aviation industry and emphatically rejects the insinuation that he doesn’t care. Pompeo introduced the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, which passed the House last year. The bill would direct the FAA to streamline the process for aircraft safety approval, as well as improve the regulatory framework to encourage innovation in the aviation industry. That’s a tangible initiative, even if it’s yet to bear fruit. “The two bills that [Tiahrt] passed in his entire 16 years in Congress were to rename post offices,” says Richardson. But Pompeo still must contend with the reality that the aviation industry in his district hasn’t flourished on his watch. Tiahrt’s betting that conservative primary voters will place anxiety about losing their jobs over a more principled desire to reject federal influence.

It’s certainly a novel approach in the Tea Party era for a GOP candidate to signal they intend to bring home the federal bacon. But Tiahrt’s also trying to outflank Pompeo on the right on some key issues. He accuses Pompeo of “support for numerous bills funding Obamacare,” which is a tendentious spin on routine budget votes. It’s also a hollow criticism considering Tiahrt recently told the Butler County Times-Gazette, “Some provisions in Obamacare should remain.” Pompeo is also a strong supporter of the military and intelligence communities, and has defended the NSA as “doing important work.” Accordingly, Tiahrt criticizes Pompeo’s “support of NSA surveillance of American citizens.” But Tiahrt was formerly a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. A cached copy of brags that “his experience from working for an aerospace company was beneficial to the committee in policy development addressing our nation’s information gathering hardware decisions.” While still in office, Tiahrt was in a prime position to do something about NSA overreach. Raising the objection now seems opportunistic.

Tiahrt is “clearly just lost in terms of what to attack Mike on so he’s trying these different attack lines,” says Richardson. Pompeo’s camp also suggests there may be more to Tiahrt’s motivations than is readily apparent. Pompeo’s staff notes that a few days after Tiahrt announced, an independent expenditure group made a $15,500 ad buy on his behalf. The name on the FEC paperwork? “Willis Hartman,” aka Wink Hartman, the same man who ran against Pompeo in the 2010 primary and might be nursing a grudge. Hartman, whose family owns Hartman Oil, burned through $2 million of his considerable fortune in his unsuccessful bid against Pompeo. After his loss, Hartman floated the idea of running as a Libertarian in the general election to defeat Pompeo. Since leaving Congress, the offices for Tiahrt’s consulting operation have been housed in a building owned by Hartman. Might more Hartman money appear to support the Tiahrt campaign?

It may simply be that Tiahrt sees an opportunity to get his old job back because he’s intimately familiar with the electoral landscape and thinks Pompeo is out of touch. “When Todd was in Congress, he was in the district a lot. Every chance he could, he came back to Kansas,” says Noland. “This is where he wanted to be, meeting with people, having meetings. We’ve visited with folks who tell us they don’t hear from Mike unless it’s election time.” 

However, there are no outward signs this is a potent charge. In just two terms in Congress, Pompeo has already proven himself a formidable politician with a modest national profile. Nor is Pompeo just resting on his laurels​—​unusually for an incumbent, he’s challenged Tiahrt to five debates between now and the August 5 primary.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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