Western Kansas is often ignored and overshadowed by the state’s larger, urban populations. But when western Kansas votes, people pay attention.
During Tuesday’s primary election, two candidates — Rep. Jerry Moran and Tim Huelskamp — rode to victory largely on the support of the state’s western half.
Huelskamp, a three-term state Senator from Fowler, was a known entity in western Kansas and it became obvious Tuesday that his message of conservative values and a strict, party-line voting record resonated with voters in that part of the state.
“Our message was the same all along,” Huelskamp said. “I have a proven, conservative message and a reliable voting record and (Tuesday’s) result show that’s what 1st district voters wanted.”
But Huelskamp, who earned 35 percent of the overall vote, didn’t earn the Republican endorsement without a fight. Political newcomer and Quinter native Tracey Mann campaigned hard in Huelskamp’s territory. Working off a platform of agriculture issues and small-town prosperity, Mann was expected to take at least some of Huelskamp’s support. But he failed to do so, winning only 13 counties in the state and none south of Lane County. Even Sue Boldra, the Fort Hays State University professor, couldn’t find the supporters and votes in her area to overcome Huelskamp. She did take two western Kansas counties but was the fifth-place vote getter overall. Rob Wasinger of Cottonwood Falls spent plenty of time in the district but just couldn’t seem to make his jobs platform stick with voters. Jim Barnett, the race’s other consistent front-runner, didn’t wander into Huelskamp territory too often, choosing instead to stay in the central and eastern counties. But that too, failed to match the support western Kansas showed Huelskamp. All of the Big First candidates knew the state’s western-most voters were essential to moving to Washington but no one could crack Huelskamp’s support.
From the beginning, Huelskamp campaigned on a simple, straight forward message: clear, concise and conservative. And while Todd Tiahrt went down in flames flaunting a conservative record and tea-party like agenda, Huelskamp seemed to make the rhetoric work.
He used the term liberals like most use communism- as a threat to society- and played the district super hero in his promises to stand up to Obama and Pelosi. And during a time when most voters were looking to uproot established politicians, Huelskamp managed to use to his voting record to prove that being a political insider provided him insight and ability- not biase and complacency.
Toward the end of the race, attacks increased, lead in large part by the Huelskamp campaign. Huelskamp’s campaign found plenty of holes in Barnett’s voting record, the Emporia physician could not do the same. Try as they may, nothing thrown at Huelskamp really stuck but Huelskamp’s attacks were thrown with super glue. The campaign owned its style and throughout the race used consistent language and attacks. Voters didn’t seem to mind the negativity that accompanied the last few months of the race and if fact often joined the charge against opponents.
Western Kansas seems the unlikely focal point for any Kansas race. The district’s two most populous cities — Hutchinson and Salina — are both located in central Kansas but when voters in the west unit behind a candidate, Tuesday’s race proves, big cities don’t mean much. Yes Huelskamp won Hutchinson and Reno County, but that was just icing on an already clenched victory.
The lesson to be learned from this race is simple: win western Kansas and take the race.