TOPEKA — As U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp stood on the steps of the Kansas Statehouse last month and railed against abortion, his campaign was using the nation’s most polarizing issue to attack the congressman’s opponent.

The day before, Kansans for Huelskamp claimed in an email blast that Roger Marshall, an obstetrician from Great Bend, had close ties to a pro-abortion organization, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Marshall’s campaign fired back with an email blast of its own, accusing Huelskamp of accepting campaign donations from the American Medical Association and American Hospital Association, which support the right to have an abortion.

The back-and-forth between two of the three Republican contenders for the First congressional district are an indication that abortion, widely unpopular in the ardently conservative swath of central and western Kansas, could play a pivotal role in the state’s most-watched 2016 contest.

A clash of styles

As with many issues in the race between Huelskamp, Marshall and Alan LaPolice, the deepest divisions on abortion lie not in policy positions but in approach.

Huelskamp, often abrasive and rarely tactful, prefers to shout his opposition to abortion from the lecterns of pro-life rallies and openly challenge his political opponents on the topic.

“While I was marching at the pro-life rally in Topeka, I don’t know where Roger Marshall was,” the congressman said. “I’ve never seen him at a pro-life rally.”

Marshall, a political novice, prefers to play the part of a quiet medical professional “shocked” that Huelskamp “would be so judgmental.”

“No one is more pro-life than me,” he said. “But rather than stand on the court steps and yell at people, telling them how to live their life, I would rather sit down with the 13-year-old who is pregnant to help her get financial assistance and family planning.”

Marshall said he has delivered 7,000 babies and never performed an abortion.

LaPolice, a student retention specialist, sounds unsurprisingly like an educator when discussing the issue.

“I’m a practicing Catholic so the sanctity of life is very important to me, but I don’t just want a child born; I want a child fed, educated and loved,” he said. “I’m pro-life, not just pro-birth.”

Policy perspectives

Huelskamp and Marshall agree abortion should be illegal in all instances, including cases of rape and incest.

“A human life is always a human life,” Marshall said. “I cannot support abortion ever.”

It’s an issue on which LaPolice differs from the other two.

“I think it’s the most tragic decision a woman has to make,” he said, “and when she has to make it in these specific cases, she shouldn’t be regulated by the federal government.”

When asked if abortions should be legal to save the mother’s life, Huelskamp and Marshall both dismissed the question as a non-issue. Huelskamp said obstetricians should try to save the lives of both, and Marshall said he has never come across such a scenario in his time as an obstetrician.

LaPolice said abortion to save the mother’s life should be legal, calling it “a tragic but necessary decision to be decided upon by the family and a qualified medical caregiver.”

Ultimately, LaPolice believes the legality of abortion should be decided by each state individually under the 10th Amendment, rather than the federal government.

“I know how my opponents will twist what I say, but this is what leadership is, telling the truth even when it’s unpopular,” he said.

The donations

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is a professional association for OB-GYNs and companion group to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Marshall said the groups helped him become board certified, and he defended their positions on abortion.

“No one has done more to protect the unborn child than the American College of OB-GYNs,” he said.

The College of OB-GYNs has challenged regulations limiting abortion, winning a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed a woman’s right to abortion. The Congress of OB-GYNs political action committee is a vocal defender of Planned Parenthood and opponent of cutting federal funding to the group.

“Every pro-lifer I talked with was shocked anyone running as pro-life could associate themselves with an organization like that,” Huelskamp said.

Marshall’s campaign has, in turn, criticized Huelskamp for receiving donations from the American Medical Association — which donated $8,500 in 2012 and $5,000 in 2014 — as well as the American Hospital Association, which donated $3,000 in 2012 and $2,500 in 2014.

Both groups support the right to an abortion. Huelskamp dismissed the Marshall campaign’s rebuttal, saying he has an unblemished pro-life record in Congress and is the only candidate with a pro-life record in the race.

‘A winning issue’

Republican voters will decide between the three candidates in an Aug. 2 primary. For as long as abortion remains a popular topic in the race, Huelskamp is confident they will side with him over his opponents.

“I hope Marshall talks about abortion all day long,” he said. “It’s a really good issue for us politically. It’s a winning issue for us.”

Kansans for Life, the state’s influential anti-abortion group, has not yet made an endorsement in the race but ordinarily supports incumbents if they are anti-abortion. Kathy Ostrowski, the group’s legislative director, said Huelskamp has a 100-percent pro-life voting record.

“I think this issue is up for each and every voter to decide,” Marshall said. “Most informed voters will realize they have two pro-life candidates.”

Marshall said he has “walked the walk” and proven his anti-abortion bona fides by delivering babies at residency programs and hospitals that do not perform abortions.

“Here’s two very different people,” he said of himself and Huelskamp. “I am not a politician and have a lifelong reputation of unifying people to solve problems.”

LaPolice said his opponents have no interest in finding solutions to abortion, preferring instead to fight politically about an emotional topic.

“If we don’t deal with this issue by coming together — so we can then deal with other issues like the debt and the War on Terror — then these political opportunists will continue to take advantage of our government and the taxpayers,” he said.

Dole in ’74

There is precedence for the power of abortion in a Kansas congressional race.

Bob Dole, then a freshman senator, struggled in his 1974 re-election bid, trailing Topeka obstetrician Bill Roy as the race entered its waning weeks.

Then, during a one-hour debate on agriculture policy, Dole pivoted to abortion and reportedly asked Roy how many abortions he had performed. Roy had, on a few occasions, performed legal abortions to save the lives of mothers.

Dole’s supporters originally panicked, fearing their candidate appeared mean-spirited, but the attack worked. Anti-abortion protesters began picketing Roy’s rallies and running ads referring to Roy as an abortioner.

Dole has maintained the ugliest of ads and leaflets — including one with the words “Vote Dole” beside discarded fetuses in trash cans — were not authorized by him or his campaign.

Regardless, he recognized their importance, saying in a 1996 speech, “When abortion first became a national issue was at my re-election in 1974.”