When U.S. Representative Roger Marshall defeated incumbent Tim Huelsklamp last summer, commentators anticipated a rejection of Huelskamp’s bombastic, confrontational Tea Party politics, returning instead to a district-centered, low-key Republican like Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, both of whom once represented this same rural “Big First” district in central and western Kansas.
How committed is Marshall to his district? One major test is his stance on repealing the Affordable Care Act. According to the Congressional Budget office, 24 million Americans will lose their health coverage under the Republican bill now working its way through Congress. This includes many Kansans. According to the U.S. Census, the Big First and the Wichita-area 4th district have the highest percentages of Kansans uninsured—nearly 10% in the 1st, considerably higher than in Eastern Kansas.
The Big First also features over 200,000 constituents who get their health insurance from public—that is, government—coverage. Will Marshall look out for them? His infamous quote from last week does not bode well. A doctor, Marshall told the health-care journal STAT, “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us…’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves… morally, spiritually [and] socially.”
Marshall’s comments drew heated reaction as he toured the district last weekend. At a packed Emporia town hall meeting—in a hospital, no less—one constituent who works with the homeless shot back: “The first thing that people want when they come to the shelter is health insurance.”
Other constituents were restive with Marshall’s deflections, and even local doctors who spoke were split on ACA repeal. Marshall’s other town hall meetings also got tense.
In addition, Big First clergy responded to his STAT interview. Pastors from Sterling to Salina told me—in nearly identical language—that Marshall’s interpretation of this scripture was “the opposite of what Jesus intended.” Pastor Caela Wood First Congregational Church in Manhattan, KS, explains, “Jesus was quoting another passage from Deuteronomy about how we treat people with lower income… that’s Jesus’ way of saying, ‘you probably aren’t going to follow that.’”
From Sterling, KS, clergy, I heard, “God is biased toward the poor, powerless, and disenfranchised,” and from Salina, “Jesus is especially attentive to people’s need for healing and hope, for food and care.”
Pastor Andrew McHenry of the First Congregational Church of Emporia added, “Some people (usually wealthy Americans) interpret this not as an observation on the continual opportunity to do ministry with the poor, but as a command to entrench the poor.”
Michael P. Milliken, Episcopal Bishop for Western Kansas, summed it up: “just because Jesus said the poor will always be there doesn’t give us an excuse to look the other way.”
Can Marshall respond meaningfully? Medicaid expansion recently passed the Kansas House with many Republican votes. In Congress, Republicans are defecting from the hasty, ill-conceived ACA “replacement” bill. Opposition includes the conservative Freedom Caucus, a pragmatic Coverage Caucus, and many Republican governors.
The debate over ACA repeal and Medicaid expansion may be the first real test of Marshall’s relationship with his constituents.
Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.