JETMORE, Kan. — In a cramped meeting room at the county courthouse, US Representative Tim Huelskamp had just finished an update for his constituents when a woman rose. She didn’t really have a question for the congressman, she said, so much as a message.
“I just want to thank you,” she said, “for continually being a thorn in the side.’’
“Keep it up!” a man nearby yelled.
On it went. Huelskamp, a two-term Republican congressman, is known, more than anything else, as a major irritant in Congress — a stubborn, hard-headed opponent of just about everything except bigger budget cuts. He’s so unwilling to compromise that even House Republicans removed him from his high-profile committee assignments.
Huelskamp embodies the new intransigence that has invaded Washington, making it almost impossible to cut deals, bringing the capital to a grinding halt. Polls show many Americans find all the gridlock, debt crises, and brinkmanship frustrating.
But in Western Kansas, it appears, this is exactly what his constituents want.
“All he has to do is keep saying no,” said Jim Hingle, a 56-year-old computer serviceman from Jetmore. “Just keep saying no until people listen. . . . We want him to rankle people.”
Huelskamp voted against the Violence Against Women Act. He voted against the fiscal cliff deal. He voted against raising the debt ceiling. He even refused to support relief money for victims of Hurricane Sandy, saying the bill was “loaded up with pork.” When he didn’t think House Speaker John Boehner was being tough enough with Democrats, he nominated someone else more conservative in a failed attempt to unseat him.
The establishment in Washington views voters in places like Jetmore as part of the problem: They are sending staunchly conservative lawmakers to office with a mandate to oppose government spending and tax increases while avoiding any compromise. Their ideological purity has stymied efforts to set a coherent economic policy, sowing uncertainty in the business community and hampering the economic recovery.
But in two dozen interviews last week during the congressional recess, the people of Jetmore and the district’s other rural communities said Washington and President Obama have it all backward. Although the fractured Tea Party groups that grew in 2010 have lost some of their national stature, the anger that gave rise to the movement is still out there.
The residents of western Kansas are tired of out-of-control spending and government growth, and Huelskamp is their response. The fifth-generation farmer and former state senator easily won his first House race in 2010, 74 percent to 23 percent. In 2012, he wasn’t even opposed.
“I would say 90 percent of the people here are angry at Washington – because they’re reckless,” said Alan Snodgrass, the only doctor in Hodgeman County. “This president is trying to destroy the country I grew up in.”
The First Congressional District is among the largest by territory in the country. It is nearly 60,000 square miles, about the size of the entire state of Illinois. Billboards dot country roads reading, “Smile! Your mom chose life,” or “Did you pray today?” AM radio stations read off the latest soybean prices, and corn and wheat silos pop up along the two-lane highways.
It also is one of the reddest districts in one of the reddest states in the country, having elected only one Democrat – for a single two-year term — since the district was created in 1874. Kansas has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected.
Although the residents rely heavily on federal agricultural subsidies, the efficient work of USDA meat inspectors, and extra government aid for rural hospitals, voters in conversations across the district expressed nearly universal disdain for Washington.
“Everything is negative. It’s the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’m only 89 years old,” said Wayne Hawkins, owner of a gift shop in Dodge City, once among the wildest places in the West. “Our government is in bad shape.”
At the Larned Chamber of Commerce, the cookies topped with icing were displayed neatly on a table. Tea had been poured and coffee was ready. But anger percolated beneath the small-town hospitality.
Residents seethed over Obama’s use of“scare tactics” to win an increase in the debt limit. They resent Michelle Obama for taking vacations. They are upset with Boehner for negotiating with Obama and not winning bigger budget cuts. They think their own party has strayed from its principles and needs to make a “severe correction.”
“We hear criticisms that [Huelskamp] won’t get along, but that’s not what we elected him for. We elected him to vote for principle,” said Paula Carr, a 64-year-old who sells and repairs lawn and garden equipment. “Compromise is why we’re in the condition we’re in now — too much compromise over the last 30 years.’’
Huelskamp was part of a conservative wave in the 2010 elections that helped Republicans win control of the House, depositing a new breed of politicians in the Capitol who came to be known as the “Hell No Caucus.” About half of the 63 seats gained by the GOP were captured with Tea Party support. The farmer from western Kansas was joined by an attorney from Idaho, a former military officer from Florida, and the owner of a pottery company in Colorado.
A backlash eliminated some of their numbers in 2012, but the survivors like Huelskamp have been heartened by their sustained influence. The GOP’s fractures are visible in the House leadership. Boehner’s deputies have at times undermined his negotiations with the president, and House majority leader Eric Cantor has emerged as a hero among the conservatives.
Still, some have suggested that intransigence from the Hell-No wing has backfired, pushing House Republican leadership further to the center in search of Democratic votes to pass important bills.
“As long as their districts are willing to elect them — and the country is going down the tubes because we can’t come to compromise — we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Charles Bass, a former Republican congressman from New Hampshire. Bass estimated there were about 80 conservatives and 80 liberals who are largely averse to cutting deals, but the liberals get less attention because they are in the House minority, and because they are less vocal.
Huelskamp made his political mark by refusing to compromise. As a state senator, GOP leaders in 2003 kicked him off the Senate Ways and Means Committee. In his first run for Congress in 2010, he put out television ads showing him on a tractor, as a narrator described how he “went against his party leaders, and was kicked off his committee, for bucking the establishment and fighting wasteful spending.”
Some state Republicans were so worried about his opposition to government spending that they have tried to protect funding for a government agriculture and defense research facility by excluding it from his district.
Huelskamp was unrepentant in an interview, expressing disillusionment with his own party.
“I think Republicans are frankly too lazy,” he said between sips of unsweetened iced tea. “Too many of my colleagues don’t get out and go to have a town hall and explain what we’re about. Most Republicans don’t go out and talk about freedom and opportunity, except for their donors, near that I see.”
“What’s the vision?’’ he added. “What’s it mean for real people?”
Huelskamp had kinder words for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi – and her ability to get Democrats to take a tough vote on health care when she was speaker in 2010 – than for Boehner, a leader he says “doesn’t want to do much different” and favors “kind of status quoism.”
“We’ve got to have Republicans,’’ he said, “willing to stick to their principles rather than sticking to their office.”
Huelskamp said he thinks lawmakers’ unwillingness to stop automatic budget cuts during the sequester debate is a sign that the message from him and other Tea Party-backed politicians is sinking in.
And he expressed discontent with a blueprint released by the Republican National Committee last month, which said Republicans risked extinction unless they were able to moderate their image and broaden their appeal.
“It was 97 pages of ‘Let’s be more like the Democrats,’ ” Huelskamp said. His willingness to buck leadership prompted House leaders to remove him from the agriculture and budget committees.
His response? Fine.
“My people see that as a sign that I’m doing the right thing,” he said. “Washington has a 9 percent approval rating. Root canals are better rated than Congress.”
Jetmore (pop. 867) is a neighborly community where residents give out just the last four digits of their phone number, since most everyone has the same prefix. Towering grain elevators are the most prominent feature on Main Street. At his wife’s homey diner, Judy’s Cafe, Norman Bamberger settled into a chair and ordered dinner.
Bamberger is a lifelong Republican who is growing frustrated with his party. “The old establishment Republicans won’t support the conservatives, and we’ve got a mess,’’ he said, between bites of fried gizzards and a sirloin steak.
Bamberger has 900 cattle, and he’s going on his second bad year in a row. Meat prices are high, good for reaping a profit, but a drought has caused increases in prices of grain he needs to buy to feed his cattle. He supports the automatic budget cuts of earlier this year, except for the one that threatens to reduce the number of federal meat inspectors — which could affect his own business.
“It’s just stupid,’’ he said. Then, in a jarring attempt at dark humor that most would find offensive, he added: “Where’s Lee Harvey when you need him?”
Concerned about seeming harsh with his reference to the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy, he quickly added, “That wasn’t very nice.”
The next morning, in the back corner of the local gas station, a group of about a dozen men sat near the stocks of Budweiser and Slim Jims and talked politics. The group included the mayor, a retired farmer, and the editor of the local newspaper, the Jetmore Republican.
“There’s a lot of things you shouldn’t compromise on — period,” Charles Leet, who runs a television and appliance repair shop, said between puffs on his electronic cigarette.
“Throw out anything,” he said, then, answering his own invitation, he and his friends listed immigration and raising taxes. And in a region where older men reminisce about carrying weapons on the school bus and storing them in their lockers during class, they added gun control — a nonstarter in the Kansas First District.
Members of the gas-station gathering also agreed Medicaid and food stamps are making some people too dependent. They feel the moral underpinnings of the country are starting to fall apart. Mike Thornburg, the editor of the Jetmore Republican, was aghast when he realized the symbols he was seeing on his Facebook page were from people supporting gay marriage.
“We don’t have the gay problem,” he said with a chuckle. “We have goat and chicken [expletive] out here, but that’s OK. We can deal with that.”
Resentment toward Obama (whose mother grew up in rural Kansas) bubbled up again and again, including yet another jolting reference to assassination.
“Hell, we ought to impeach the little bastard,” Leet said. “Asleep at the switch. I keep donating to the Bring Back Lee Harvey Committee. It hasn’t worked yet.”
The group chuckled.
“We aren’t rabble-rousers. We don’t want to cause trouble,” Thornburg said a few minutes later. “But it’s been coming down the pike for a long time. So we sent you Huelskamp.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the relative geographic size of the First Congressional District in Kansas. It is among the largest by territory in the country.