Republican primary challenges are all the rage these days. The GOP is reeling from House majority leader Eric Cantor’s loss last week in Virginia to David Brat, a relatively unknown economics professor who campaigned on local issues and against the GOP leadership’s flirtation with immigration amnesty. Brat was outspent by as much as 40 to 1 and still beat a sitting majority leader—that hadn’t happened since the position was created in 1899. In Mississippi, Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel has forced Senator Thad Cochran into a runoff, despite a scandal-plagued campaign. Other Senate Republicans, such as minority leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham managed to fend off primary opponents, but there’s little question that GOP incumbents are feeling besieged by grassroots challenges.
Then there’s the primary race heating up in Kansas’s 4th District, which is a quixotic role reversal—a longtime congressman, Todd Tiahrt, is trying to take back his seat from Rep. Mike Pompeo, who was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. There did not appear to be any previous tensions between the two men; Pompeo did not unseat Tiahrt. After serving eight terms, Tiahrt relinquished his seat to run for the Senate. He lost in the 2010 primary to Sen. Jerry Moran. At the time, Tiahrt said he’d “sleep well at night” knowing Pompeo was replacing him. Kent Bush, a syndicated Kansas columnist, sums up the rationale behind Tiahrt’s current challenge this way: “You know that guy I endorsed twice for Congress? He is terrible. You should elect me instead.”
To the extent that GOP primary challenges have been successful, it’s because primary opponents have run to the right of incumbents. Tiahrt’s got his work cut out for him here. In May, National Journal rated Kansas’s congressional delegation the most conservative in the country, and Pompeo isn’t dragging down the delegation’s average. It’s also difficult to argue that Pompeo, a West Point and Harvard Law grad, is any kind of knuckle-dragger. Pompeo also has an impressive roster of supporters—Kansans for Life, the Kansas Farm Bureau, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Americans for Prosperity, to name a few.
So why is Tiahrt running? “There are a number of things happening in the local economy which are devastating to the 4th District of Kansas. When Mr. Tiahrt was in office before, one of the main things he did [was support] the aviation and aerospace industries here in the 4th District—Wichita in particular,” Robert Noland, Tiahrt’s campagn manager, tells The Weekly Standard. “Half our aviation companies have left in the past couple years. They’ve moved on to other places. And when Todd was in office he did a lot of work to try to keep jobs here, keep people going, and help the local economy. The current congressman hasn’t paid as much attention to those things.” In particular, Noland notes that on May 30, Pompeo introduced an amendment to shut down the federal Economic Development Administration—a day after the same agency announced southern Kansas was being labeled a manufacturing zone and was thus eligible for federal largesse that might help preserve jobs.
There’s a thin line, however, between watching out for your district’s economic interests and the temptation to gorge on pork. Tiahrt’s career in Congress saw him weaving all over that line. “You know he talks openly about the need to bring back earmarks,” says Jim Richardson, Pompeo’s campaign manager—who also spent six years working for Tiahrt. The House Republican Conference instituted an earmark ban shortly after the GOP’s historic victory in 2010, just as Tiahrt was on his way out. His last two years in office, Tiahrt doled out $33 million in earmarks to aviation companies alone. In 2010, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Tiahrt’s ties to the PMA Group, a lobbying firm raided by the FBI that was arranging hefty campaign donations for defense appropriators in exchange for earmarks. Later that year, it was reported that interests receiving earmarks from Tiahrt had given him $46,000 in campaign donations—the second-highest total in Congress. During Tiahrt’s unsuccessful Senate bid, Moran made an issue of Tiahrt’s earmarks. Even then, he continued to defend the practice to the Wichita Eagle. “Everybody in Kansas asks for earmarks,” he said. “Everybody.”
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 ToddTiahrt.com 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.