Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has shown he can take a punch.
The third-term senator has been dogged by questions about where he really lives, but it appears that he is enough of a local to keep his seat in Congress.
Yet, predictions of Roberts’s demise appear to be premature. And barring something unforeseen, another Tea Party Senate hopeful taking on a GOP incumbent will fall short in 2014.
Conservatives haven’t had a perfect candidate in Wolf, who’s been dogged by reports outlining Facebook posts he’s made in which he evaluated patients’ X-rays with off-color commentary. Roberts’s team has used that controversy to raise questions about Wolf’s character. Kansas political operatives say although Wolf’s name still isn’t known throughout the state, his Facebook postings are.
Many of the outside groups that weighed in on other GOP primaries are sitting this one out. Roberts campaign adviser Leroy Towns said the senator’s team is still wary of the possibility of a last-minute offensive from conservative groups in the final two weeks of the race. The primary is Aug. 5.
“Oh sure, we’re watching out every day,” he said. “Those kinds of unexpected things always concern you, and you’re always on the lookout for them. We’ve got our canary in the coal mine.”
NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE?
News that Roberts rents out the home he owns in Dodge City, Kan., and rents a room from donors seemed, when it broke, to be a game changer.
Roberts did himself no favors when he misspoke in a radio interview just a month out from the primary. While dismissing questions over where he calls home, Robert said, “Every time I get an opponent, I’m home.”
Similar concerns dogged former Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R) and contributed to his surprising primary defeat. Wolf launched multiple ads, calling Roberts “the senator from Virginia” at every opportunity.
That’s because, Wolf campaign manager Ben Hartman said, “Residency is the one issue that links to every other issue.”
“Why did Roberts vote for tax hikes? Because he’s not in the state to hear from constituents. Why did he vote for 11 debt-ceiling increases? Because he’s not in the state. These are not votes Kansans want their senator to cast,” he said.
But some Kansas operatives said that unlike Lugar, Roberts doesn’t have a reputation for being AWOL, and he’s given a pass on the fact he doesn’t return to Dodge City often.
“Dodge City is a long way away from the population centers of the state of Kansas … and so you will see Roberts fly back, but he’ll be in metro areas like Kansas City, Wichita perhaps, more than he is Dodge City,” said Matt Hickam, a Kansas-based Republican strategist.
Wolf has residency issues of his own. He’s from Johnson County, which includes part of suburban Kansas City and is viewed skeptically by many in the western part of the state, according to Kansas GOP Executive Director Clay Barker.
“Western Kansas sees it as not real Kansas,” he said.
Barker said the residency question is “an effective issue for Wolf to jump on, [but] it’s been brought up in previous elections and it didn’t hurt Roberts then.”
Unlike Lugar, Roberts has a reputation as a largely conservative senator, occasionally willing to reach across the aisle but not as much as Lugar or Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who came close to losing his primary challenge earlier this year.
Roberts nabbed the endorsements of the American Conservative Union and the National Right to Life, and Hickam pointed out he’s not seen as a “bring-home-the-bacon appropriator” like Cochran.
“I think Roberts is unique, if you try to compare him to, say, Sen. Lugar or other liberal or moderate Republican senators. Roberts has always been consistently conservative or perceived that way in the state,” he said.
To eliminate any uncertainty in the minds of Kansans, Roberts has tacked to the right in recent months, voting against the farm bill — a surprise for a senator from such a rural state. He also opposed the budget deal that included funding for a pet project of his in Kansas.
He called on former Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to resign as Health and Human Services secretary, even though he had vocally supported her nomination and has close ties to her
Wolf has made tax and debt increases, as well as Roberts’ initial vote to confirm Sebelius, central to his argument against the senator. But Wolf has struggled to present himself as a clear
alternative to the incumbent.
AN OCTOBER SURPRISE
Roberts has held a 20 to 30 point lead in nearly every public poll of the race, and took 56 percent of the vote in the most recent independent poll, conducted in late June.
But David Kensinger, an adviser to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and a supporter of Roberts, said the campaign isn’t “taking anything for granted.”
“We have two weeks to go. We’re trying to be ready for anything,” he said, adding that there’s “always the possibility” that outside groups invest big to sway the outcome in the final weeks.
A survey released last week from the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) gave Wolf’s supporters hope he may be picking up momentum in the final stretch. It showed Roberts leading Wolf 42 to 30 percent among likely primary voters, and after voters are given more information about the two, the margin flips in Wolf’s favor. The TPP has endorsed Wolf.
Still, most political observers in the state are skeptical over what appears to have been a push poll, and the TPP hasn’t released any further details to substantiate its results.
The Club for Growth, Citizens United and FreedomWorks have all been sitting the primary out. The Madison Project is launching robocalls for Wolf this week, but typically has few resources to go on-air. The Senate Conservatives Fund is the only group on television for Wolf, and the group’s buy is under a half-million through the election.
The TPP, said spokesman Kevin Broughton, is “working out right now what kind of commitment” it will make in Kansas. But he admitted the group is suffering from the same problem facing other conservative organizations that bet big, and lost, on GOP primaries this cycle.
“We spent a ton of financial and human resources in Mississippi, and so got to these races about three weeks later than we expected to and with diminished coffers,” he said.