Todd Tiahrt is a proud former member of the House tea party caucus. He claims to have a "100% pro-life voting record," he was a vociferous opponent of the 2009 economic stimulus plan, and he carries an A-rating from the National Rifle Association. By all accounts, the former congressman from Kansas is a doctrinaire tea partier. He's currently attempting to reclaim his old seat from Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican who claims to be the true conservative tea partier in the race and commands endorsements from groups like Tea Party Nation and FreedomWorks.
Yet there's one political issue on which the challenger makes common cause with liberals. Todd Tiahrt wants food to be clearly labeled if includes GMOs (genetically modified organisms). And he's making an issue out of it in his campaign against Pompeo.
“Moms want to know what is in their kids’ foods. People want to know,” he told local press on Tuesday. “They are upset that someone wants to withhold information from them."
GMO labeling is most often associated with blue states like California, where environmental activists launched a failed 2012 campaign to institute mandatory labeling by popular referendum. But it's a live issue in Kansas' fourth congressional district, thanks in part to Pompeo's efforts in Washington. In April, the congressman -- who originally replaced Tiahrt in the 2010 election -- introduced The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, which would block states from instituting GMO labeling laws. An April statement from Pompeo's office says the legislation is intended to "protect consumers by eliminating confusion and advancing food safety."
“From the Kansas farmer’s harvest to a Kansas family’s table, our food supply is crucial to our economy, to our health, and to our way of life,” said Pompeo in the statement. “The Sunflower State has relied on technological advances in order to feed the world, and this bill would ensure our continued success in providing safe, affordable, and nutritious food.”
The spat between Tiahrt and Pompeo over GMO labeling is only possible because the issue causes two Republican orthodoxies to run into conflict with one another: Pompeo can say he is doing the right thing for the agricultural industry in Kansas, while Tiahrt can argue that Pompeo's bill runs roughshod over the state's right to steer its own course on agricultural policy.
But the fight over GMO labeling also shows how the tea party has broken with the GOP's usually stalwart support for big business. It's not at all unusual for members of the tea party to rail against "crony capitalism," creating unexpected headaches for some of the Republican Party's traditional corporate allies. After all, it was the tea party -- not the Democrats -- who forced a standoff over the debt ceiling, despite the strenuous objections of the financial sector. In Kansas, the industry trade group known as the American Chemistry Council has poured $165,200 into media buys in support of Pompeo. Tiahrt made hay out of the Chemistry Council's intervention in a Monday statement.
"These corporations have their profit line in mind not the best interests of the voters of the fourth district," he said. "I want to bring this seat back to the people – this seat should not and cannot be bought. I will look out for the best interests of Kansans, and not the big money lobbyists or corporations who are running Washington D.C."
The tea party has broken ranks with the agricultural industry before. Last April, after President Obama signed legislation which prevents federal courts from halting the planting or sale of genetically modified seeds, the group Tea Party Patriots joined green activists in deriding the bill as the "Monsanto Protection Act." Tea partiers have also joined with environmentalists to safeguard "the rights of property owners and private citizens in terms of how and where they can prepare their food," according to a January 2013 article from U.S. News and World Report.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch, said left-right convergence was more likely to happen on agricultural policy than without issues because it's "much messier."
"Agricultural policy doesn't line up neatly with the normal assumptions about partisan approaches," she said. "It's pretty regional. Folks who want nothing to do with the federal government are just fine with federal agricultural programs."
UPDATE: This article has been revised to reflect the fact that Pompeo claims to be the true tea party candidate in the race, and commands substantial popularity with various tea party groups.