Conservative congressman Tim Huelskamp lost reelection badly on Tuesday, losing his primary by 14 points.
There are two stories to tell about Huelskamp's loss, and both are true. One story is the same old story about the same old Beltway GOP divide that defined the party from Obama's election to Trump's nomination: The battle between the GOP's corporate lobbyists and the GOP's free-market crusaders.
The second story is far more mundane, but perhaps more important: Being a congressman is a job, and being good at that job involves more than just being right.
We can tell the first story by following the money.
The main group funding the campaign against Huelskamp was a super PAC called ESAFund. It used to be called the "Ending Spending Action Fund," and the group describes itself as supporting politicians "who favor enhancing free enterprise, reducing the size of government."
Ironically, Huelskamp earned so much ire by supporting free-enterprise: He voted against a bloated farm bill, he co-sponsored a bill to eliminate the ethanol mandate, and he consistently opposed the Export-Import Bnak.
ESA Fund spent more than $1 million against Huelskamp. Three donors cut three large checks to ESAFund in the final weeks before Huelskamp's primary, including two from Kansas: Conestoga Energy Partners ($30,000) and American Warrior, Inc. ($50,000).
Conestoga Energy Partners is an ethanol producer whose declared mission is "to be a leader in the marketing and production of low-carbon renewable energy."
Two years ago, Huelskamp signed onto the American Energy Renaissance Act to increase free enterprise in the energy industry. The bill would have removed federal restrictions on the exports of coal, gas, and oil, liberalized offshore drilling and streamlined the permitting process for pipelines. It would have also phased out the renewable fuel standard.
The state's ethanol industry, including Conestoga, opposed the bill and publicly chastised Huelskamp for signing on.
One Conestoga boardmember and shareholder is Garden City, Kansas, businessman and declared Huelskamp foe Cecil O'Brate. O'Brate has also helmed Bonanza Bioenergy and Diamond ethanol. O'Brate's main enterprise is American Warrior Inc., the oil company he owns which also funded ESA Fund.
Archer Daniels' Midland is the country's most venerable ethanol producer. ADM's PAC contributed to Huelskamp's opponent, Roger Marshall. Huelskamp opposed the federal sugar program, which subsidizes sugar companies while driving up costs for U.S. consumers. American Crystal Sugar's PAC and the Florida Sugar Cane League's PAC both funded Marshall.
The U.S. Chamber also spent $400,000 against Huelskamp. The Chamber opposed Huelskamp on all of the corporate-welfare matters, especially Ex-Im.
I asked why O'Brate went after Huelskamp, and the energy baron cited Huelskamp's "combativeness toward our agricultural roots." Sure enough, Huelskamp had earned the enmity of his party leadership for opposing farm pork and corporate welfare.
So that's the first story of Huelskamp's defeat. But the second story is just as true.
"You can't underestimate the a—hole factor," one House Republican said when I asked why Huelskamp lost. Rejecting corporate welfare can easily get you a primary challenge funded by K Street. But Michigan's Justin Amash and Kansas' Mike Pompeo (who voted with Huelskamp on almost all his offending votes) easily survived their primary challenges two years ago. Other free-marketeers who buck party leadership sit pretty — think of Tom McClintock, Jim Jordan or Thomas Massie.
Ask around among House conservatives, and conservative staff, and you'll hear high praise for Huelskamp's record and regret about his job performance. Committee chairmen would approach Huelskamp and ask "how can I win your vote on this bill," and Huelskamp wouldn't engage. He didn't just fight Speaker John Boehner — he raised money off of fighting Boehner.
When media scolds, moderate-Republicans-turned lobbyists and party mandarins talk about "effective" and "productive" members, they often employ a standard definition that amounts to "increases government and plays ball with special interests."
But there is a middle ground between being Huelskamp and being Stephen Fincher. You can hew to your principles, stay independent from leadership, and not be, so to speak, an a—hole.
The GOP establishment really didn't want Tom Coburn to come to the U.S. Senate, for instance. When he did, he regularly gummed up the works. But Senate leadership staff explained to me that Coburn was reasonable. When he placed a hold on a bill, he explained what leadership had to do for him to lift the hold. If they complied, he stepped aside. If leadership changed a bill to meet Coburn's specifications, Coburn supported the bill.
Huelskamp, on the other hand, was one of the Republicans who demanded GOP leadership split the Farm Bill and the food stamps bill in 2014 — then voted against both.
My conversations with conservatives about Huelskamp sounded like marriage advice. You can disagree, but you need to communicate and hold up your end of the deal. Multiple Capitol Hill conservatives told me Huelskamp was all opposition and no communication.
Returning to Cecil O'Brate, the oil-and-ethanol businessman who helped bankroll Huelskamp's defeat. His explanation to me included this argument
"He has been incapable of working with fellow members of Congress. This is best represented by a committee colleagues recent quote: 'He's burned more bridges than J.E.B. Stuart.' On a personal side, he has threatened to 'personally ruin' me and my fellow business partners because we asked a question regarding his vote against the farm bill."
For K Street and subsidy sucklers, Marshall may prove a true ally. For conservatives and believers in limited government, Huelskamp's defeat is a real loss. Hopefully it can also serve as a lesson.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.