WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Eleven biofuel plants dot the vast expanse of western and central Kansas, where farm fields stretch to the horizon and corn and sorghum are the backbone of the rural economy.
So when the Republican congressman who represents the area co-sponsored a bill that would cut demand for biofuels by phasing out a federal renewable energy program, many of his rural constituents took note. Their anger is now coming back to haunt U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp in the waning days before the Aug. 5 GOP primary.
Huelskamp, a tea party favorite and Kansas farmer known for his criticism of the GOP leadership in Washington, is locked in an unexpectedly tough race with a political novice as he seeks a third two-year term. His challenger, Alan LaPolice, a farmer and educator, supports the renewable energy standards, which mandate a percentage of renewable fuels in gasoline.
Like some others swept into office in the tea party class of 2010 that helped the Republicans capture the House majority, Huelskamp is finding that a strict free-market ideology and local economic interests can be tough to balance.
A political action committee, Now or Never, has dumped more than $260,000 into the race to oppose Huelskamp, regulatory filings show. The group's ads feature Tom Willis, a Kansas farmer and president of Conestoga Energy Partners, which owns ethanol plants in Liberal and Garden City that make fuel from corn.
Willis said the majority of the Now or Never PAC money being spent on the race comes from Kansas people who are involved in agricultural and ethanol in the state.
The ethanol industry has been the "best success story for rural America" in the last 20 years, Willis said in an interview. Willis said Huelskamp was "willing to put all that at risk for his ideology."
The Kansas Corn Growers Association, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Association of Ethanol Processors and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association also weighed in this week with a scathing joint statement criticizing Huelskamp.
The congressman's position "shows a lack of understanding of commodity markets, value-added agriculture, and what it means to be a Congressional Representative to his constituents," said Farm Bureau President Steve Baccus.
Huelskamp said Wednesday that his legislation, which is not expected to be taken up this year in the House, would phase out the renewable fuel standard over several years.
"I don't think Washington should be picking winners and losers," Huelskamp said. "I think industry should be able to compete in the marketplace."
The political pushback is something new for Huelkamp, who was unopposed for re-election two years ago. Just last year, the Kansas Farm Bureau awarded him its "Friend of Farm Bureau" award.
The incumbent had more than $800,000 on hand this month for the homestretch of the primary, compared to the $36,600 in cash reported by his challenger. The Tea Party Express, Freedomworks for America and other conservative organizations are backing him.
Kansas has 13 biofuel plants that generate nearly $1.5 billion each year, said Greg Krissek, chief executive officer of the Kansas Corn Growers Association. A 2010 legislative study done before the last plant was built found the industry supported 331 direct jobs and 1,600 related jobs.
The plants came on line as rural economies were suffering from dwindling population and fluctuating crop prices.
The state's two major farm organizations, the Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Farm Bureau, declined to endorse Huelskamp's re-election. Farmers are also upset about Huelskamp's repeated votes against a Farm Bill.
Huelskamp said his bill includes provisions that would help the Kansas economy by easing environmental roadblocks for expansion of the Sunflower coal-fired power plant and deterring new regulations on hydraulic fracturing in oil drilling.