- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - A former Manhattan mayor little known to rural western Kansas voters is giving U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp an aggressive re-election challenge, tapping into voter discontent with a Republican incumbent known for his brusque style and a tax-cutting fervor that have made him a tea party favorite in Washington.

Democrat Jim Sherow has mounted a hard-fought challenge in the sprawling 1st District of Kansas despite seemingly overwhelming odds in a heavily Republican district against a well-funded incumbent. Even in the campaign’s waning days it remains unclear just how vulnerable Huelskamp remains because there is no reliable independent polling on the race during an election in which the Kansas races for U.S. Senate and governor have dominated headlines.

But if the reactions of a sometimes hostile audience during a candidate forum earlier this month in Salina are any indication, the anti-incumbent sentiment permeating the higher-profile Kansas races could factor in the 1st District. More than 250 people came to hear the candidates at the event hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce. Huelskamp was often heckled, his answers drawing at times angry shouts of “No!” from the audience. At one point, Sherow asked people to let his opponent finish a response in which Huelskamp derided the health care reform act.

Unruffled, Huelskamp was blunt when asked during the forum about his thoughts on the use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, for oil exploration in Kansas. He called fracking a “tremendous opportunity” for the state. Surveying his audience, he then added: “I am looking around the audience again, a lot of retired folks who may not care about jobs.”

His comment drew a mix of groans and laughs from the audience. The next day, Sherow’s campaign featured the line in its advertising.

During some 250 town hall meetings, Huelskamp said his constituents have told him they are worried about jobs, about health care, debt and national security.

“They are concerned about the future in Washington, D.C. and they are looking for some real solutions,” Huelskamp said.

He blamed President Barack Obama’s policies for people not being able to find jobs because of too much regulation, high taxes and mandates from the health care reform law.

But Sherow said his opponent has accomplished little during this term in Congress, making 39 attempts at legislation and passing none.

“His aggressive posturing landed him in front of TV cameras and has gotten him kicked off the agriculture committee,” Sherow said. “What Tim Huelskamp can’t do is offer you solutions, because even his own party does not listen to him.”

On other issues, Huelskamp opposes same-sex marriages, Sherow does not. Huelskamp says it is the president’s job to secure the border, while Sherow wants the House to vote on a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate. Huelskamp opposes increasing the federal minimum wage, while Sherow said workers deserve higher wages.

That recent forum in central Kansas was a stark contrast to Huelskamp’s first primary debate in Liberal where the western Kansas audience there was friendlier, despite an unexpectedly close challenge against an unknown political newcomer, Alan LaPolice. While Huelskamp survived the primary, he now faces a far more experienced opponent in Sherow, a former Manhattan mayor and Kansas State University history professor.

Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, a group of more than 70 former Republican Kansas legislators, have endorsed Sherow over Huelskamp.

While challengers in close statewide races have been able to cobble together disaffected Republicans, Democrats and independents, that’s a tougher task in the 1st District where 53 percent of registered voters are Republicans, said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. Statewide, the number of registered Republican voters statewide is 44 percent.

Huelskamp has angered farmers after his own party leaders removed him from the House agricultural committee. Huelskamp also repeatedly voted against the farm bill and against funding for the national biosecurity lab being built in Manhattan. He further irritated his constituents by co-sponsoring legislation that would phase out the renewable energy standard while representing a district with 11 biofuel plants and vast fields of corn and sorghum that form the backbone of its rural economy.

But Huelskamp enjoys a big financial advantage. His recent campaign finance report shows he had $595,378 cash on hand going into the final weeks of the campaign. Sherow had $15,350.

Sherow has been trying to make up for the shortage of cash by actively campaigning in a district that encompasses more than 60 counties. He was scheduled to kick off a 10-day tour across western Kansas on Saturday.

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