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Tiahrt, Pompeo in Shootout over GMO Labeling

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo's opponent in his upcoming GOP primary is using the incumbent's national GMO-labeling bill as a campaign hammer, and it just might register enough with the public to tighten the race.

Todd Tiahrt says he's not necessarily in favor of allowing states to mandate the labeling of foods and beverages that contain genetically modified organisms, but he thinks it's none of the federal government's business.

The former eight-term representative from Kansas's 4th Congressional District has stepped up his attacks on Pompeo's support for the measure in the waning days before the Aug. 5 primary in an attempt to win back his seat.

"Mr. Pompeo's legislation is essentially a pay-off to the corporations funding his campaign, his special interest contributors and their lobbyists," Tiahrt charges in a press release distributed last week. "In his efforts to thank his many special-interest contributors, his legislation would increase the size of government (which he claims to oppose) and mandate new regulations (which he also claims to oppose) to punish the competitors of his financial backers."

The race for Kansas' 4th District seat has long been considered an easy win for Pompeo, but at least one poll indicates the gap between the candidates has narrowed in the last month. A July 23 SurveyUSA poll found that of 671 likely 4th District Republican voters surveyed, 46 percent backed Pompeo and 39 percent favored Tiahrt, with a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

That's a narrower split than seen in the group's June 19 poll, which put Pompeo ahead 51 percent to Tiahrt's 36 percent.

The winner of the primary will face Democrat Perry Schuckman, who is running unopposed in his party's primary, in November.

Pompeo, who is attempting to secure his third term, introduced his GMO-labeling legislation in April with the strong backing of the food industry and agriculture groups. Among other things, Pompeo's bill, H.R. 4432, would codify the FDA's voluntary "GMO-free" labeling system and pre-empt any state laws that might require those labels. It also would require the FDA to come up with a definition of "natural" - a term that has befuddled consumers for decades.

Pompeo said he got the idea for the bill from farmers in his district. Biotechnology is an essential tool for farmers, and interstate commerce in bioengineered goods must be protected to safeguard their livelihoods, he said, adding that the ultimate goal of pro-labeling groups is to end the use of GMOs in food.

When Pompeo took his idea to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican said a bill was being worked on but an early sponsor had backed out. That's when Pompeo jumped in.

"I think about it as the bill that's going to feed the next billion people," Pompeo said at a recent a meeting of the American Soybean Association, which backs the measure.

But for Tiahrt, the measure is more about violating states' rights and kowtowing to Washington's business interests than catering to Kansas's farming community.

"I would not prevent the states from doing what they want to do," Tiahrt told POLITICO. "It's not that I'm targeting GMOs; it's just that I'm protecting the Constitution and keeping a free flow of information.   What we have with Pompeo's bill is big government at the breakfast table."

Tiahrt, who left his 4th District seat in 2010 for a failed Senate primary run against then-Rep. Jerry Moran, said it's not necessarily that he supports GMO labeling, but rather that states should be able to have the say-so without interference from the federal government.

Tiahrt, who has also criticized Pompeo's legislation in public debates and recently sent his thoughts to the GMO-labeling group Just Label It, charges that the impetus for Pompeo's bill didn't come from Kansans. Rather, it was from major food and biotech companies that have contributed to Pompeo's campaign, he said.

Pompeo's bill "is a classic case of crony capitalism," Tiahrt said. "Lobbyists and corporations want the best legislation that money can buy - and Pompeo delivered."

While Tiahrt has raised just $90,344 and is financing the rest of his $141,00 campaign with a loan, Pompeo has raised $1.8 million, just over half of which has come from PACs, according to federal election records.

Tiahrt said the fundraising difference shows that his campaign is one of "the people versus the PACs" and is proof of the influence of lobbyists on Pompeo.

The political action committees of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, American Soybean Association and Dow Chemical Company, among other similar groups, have all given to Pompeo, with a chunk of the money coming after the April 9 introduction of the bill. However, only about $30,000 has come from the food industry and agricultural PACs, according to campaign finance records.

By contrast, more than $54,000 came from Wichita-based Koch Industries and its employees. And Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, just this month made a more than $400,000 ad buy for the campaign, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

However, Tiahrt's recent remarks on GMO labeling have brought him new-found attention - and money.

The advocacy group Food Policy Action has launched a "significant five-figure" digital ad campaign in the district backing Tiahrt, Claire Benjamin, the group's managing director, told POLITICO. Benjamin said the ads will make the case that Pompeo "is completely beholden to the interests of Big Food over families."

"To some, Todd Tiahrt may seem a strange bedfellow for us, but regardless of politics or party, FPA will stand up for those that stand up for families and their right to know what's in their food," Benjamin said. She declined to disclose the full amount that the group would spend on the campaign.

When asked about Tiahrt's tactics, Pompeo said he hadn't expected the GMO-labeling issue to come up in the primary, if at all.

"I'm surprised that in a Republican primary a Republican would take a position that is so disruptive to Kansas agriculture," Pompeo said, adding that his bill is a top priority of the Kansas Farm Bureau. Pompeo said his legislation is needed to protect Kansas farmers and food producers from the cost and stigma of labeling and the cost of complying with multiple state labeling laws.

"It's unimaginable that a conservative would take the view that Kansas should suffer because San Francisco has an ordinance" that requires labeling, Pompeo said, inferring that if the most liberal of U.S. cities, or any other city or state for that matter, enacts a labeling law, companies would have to change their supply chains and labeling to serve those areas.

Tiahrt is "basically deferring to Vermont and San Francisco" to determine how Kansans should grow food and what they should eat, and that, Pompeo said, could "destroy the way of life for Kansans."

What's more, Tiahrt backed a similar measure when he held the seat, a Pompeo spokesman said.

Tiahrt was one of 226 lawmakers to co-sponsor legislation, H.R. 4167, that aimed to prevent states from enforcing requirements on food safety warnings that weren't identical to those of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. That would have included pre-empting numerous state laws, including one in Alaska requiring the labeling of genetically modified fish, Democrats said in their dissenting views in the report accompanying the bill.

The measure passed the House 283-139 in March 2006 but didn't advance in the Senate.

Still, while Tiahrt's states' rights turnabout may fare well with some Kansas voters, it's unclear if the issue will help Tiahrt make up the difference. The idea has its skeptics.

"From a strategic sense, I just don't see that being a hot issue," Aaron Trost, a political consultant with the Kansas-based Singularis Group, said. Concerns about Obamacare, big government and other well-worn GOP criticisms of the Obama administration are the main issues driving Republican voters in the state, he said.

Tiahrt's run to the right by citing states' rights as reason to oppose Pompeo's GMO labeling effort is a difficult maneuver, especially against Pompeo, who gets high conservative marks, Trost said. With Tiahrt's attack on the GMO legislation, "it seems like his strategy has been to throw 10 things out and see what sticks," Trost said. He added: "I have not heard one person bring it up, other than that I've seen it mentioned a little bit in the Kansas [4th District] race. It's not an issue here."

And while concern over industry dollars is a common theme in campaigns, Trost said the sources of Pompeo's war chest are unlikely to register in the election booth.

"Voters always complain about outside money, but they rarely vote on it," Trost said. "At the end of the day, I think people especially in the GOP primary, they are more concerned if somebody is a conservative or not."