Questions about whether Sen. Pat Roberts (R) is really in Kansas anymore have made him the most vulnerable he’s ever been in his decades-long career.
The development has given his primary challenger, radiologist Milton Wolf, new ammunition in his long-shot bid.
A New York Times report earlier this month revealed Roberts no longer lives in the home he owns in Kansas, and instead pays rent to two of his donors to stay with them — he has “full access to the recliner,” he joked — when he’s back in town.
The report raised eyebrows and sparked immediate attacks from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a national conservative group that’s backing Wolf and is unafraid to take on incumbents.
Roberts’s staff said the Times story was “hit piece” — he rents out the house he owns — but then his team went largely silent, refusing to answer follow-up questions from reporters about his living arrangement in Kansas.
Sensing an opportunity, Wolf's campaign launched a radio ad last week that referenced the "La-Z-Boy recliner" and repeatedly referred to him as "the Senator from Virginia."
The residency risk is real: Similar questions dogged former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) last cycle and contributed to his loss in the primary, and eventually the GOP’s loss of the seat altogether.
Wolf’s campaign sees the questions about Roberts’s residency as an opportunity to hammer him on what they see as his main weakness: that he’s out of touch with Kansas.
“It ties into a lot of other issues that are also big vulnerabilities for him,” said Wolf spokesman Ben Hartman.
He pointed to Roberts’s vote to confirm the state’s former governor, Kathleen Sebelius, as secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as his votes to increase the debt limit.
“He’s clearly out of touch with Kansas — and that’s because he doesn’t live here,” said Hartman.
As Democratic prospects for keeping the Senate grow murkier, the party is looking at a number of contested primary states where they might be able to go on offense. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since the 1930s, but Democrats have won statewide before, most recently with Sebelius, elected as governor in 2002 and reelected in 2006. But it’s a long shot nonetheless for Democrats.
Kansas Republicans admit the questions for Roberts aren’t likely to go away.
“The residency issue will probably be in the background the rest of the campaign,” said one state GOP operative. “It’ll be a drip drip drip.”
Growing too close to Washington also helped sink former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) in the open 2010 GOP Senate primary. He faced questions about his commitment to the state because he moved his family to be closer to him in Washington.
But Roberts’s team is pledging to fight the issue, launching a new radio ad from that sought to frame Wolf as out of touch with Kansas.
It also showed they know residency is a sensitive subject — the ad uses the word “Kansas” 11 times. And though the spot pointed to the small number of donors from Kansas contributing to Wolf’s campaign, it opened Roberts up to scrutiny of his own campaign contributions — and accusations of hypocrisy.
“This is extremely hypocritical coming from a politician who lives in Virginia and hasn't actually lived in Kansas for over 15 years,” Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins shot back. “It shows how worried Sen. Roberts is that voters will find out that he has been lying to them about where he lives.”
Leroy Towns, Roberts’s campaign manager, argued that the amount of contributions the primary challenger received from Kansans is “very pathetic.”
Towns also pointed to a Mother Jones report from Friday that highlighted controversial comments Wolf made comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler as an indication Wolf is “a little wacky.”
“That shows somebody who is very extreme and also a little wacky, and very much out of touch with mainstream Republicans. That’s reflected in the fact that he has absolutely no support from mainstream Kansans,” said Towns.
Kansas Republican strategist Ashley McMillan, who formerly worked as director of operations on Roberts’s campaign, also suggested Wolf’s career and the fact that he lives in Johnson County, one of the most affluent counties in the nation, makes him out of touch with average Kansans.
“He’s a wealthy surgeon from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, making kind of frivolous attacks on an elder statesman,” she said of Wolf.
The residency issue has been potent enough to unearth an old rumor in the state that Colyer could jump in the race if Roberts decides to retire. Multiple sources said an unknown person was polling a head-to-head matchup between Colyer and Wolf a week ago, after the residency issue came to light.
But Colyer said that’s out of the question for him.
“I haven’t had that discussion,” he told The Hill, chuckling. “Pat Roberts is running, and he’s a great candidate.”
Pressed on whether he could see a scenario in the near future where he jumped in if Roberts retired, Colyer indicated that was unlikely.
“There’s nothing that I could imagine that would happen that would result in me running,” he said.
Towns, Roberts’s campaign manager, said that scenario absolutely wouldn’t happen.
“He has no intention of retiring. It has never crossed anybody’s mind,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a rumor. Those kinds of things always float around politics.”
Still, as a testament to Roberts’s support network within the state’s political class, Colyer punctuated his answers with unprompted praise for the senator. He said the senator was a “great candidate,” that he’s “running hard,” and added, without being asked about the residency issue: “I see him everywhere. He’s working hard for the state.”
The answers to unasked questions hinted that the residency issue remains forefront in the minds of even Roberts’s supporters.
But they realize that, even if Roberts successfully navigates the residency issue, he’ll still have to shore up support on his right flank.
Colyer, however, covered that base too: “He was cool before conservative was cool,” he said.