Senate races

Tea Party revolt imperils Kansas

Getty Images

Kansas Tea Party supporters are threatening to sit out the state’s pivotal Senate election, potentially dealing another blow to the reelection hopes of Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Though schisms within the GOP base rarely have such an outsized impact on a general election contest, the lack of support from the conservative base could be devastating to the vulnerable Roberts’s chances against surging independent Greg Orman. 

{mosads}Multiple sources tell The Hill that a group of Tea Party leaders in the state are meeting Wednesday to try to decide whether they should go to bat for the incumbent this fall or sit out of the race entirely. 

Aware of the vulnerabilities it faces, the Roberts campaign has been engaged in a full-court press to mend fences with conservatives over the past few weeks and regain some of the trust lost during the bitter primary fight against radiologist Milton Wolf, whom the senator beat by a closer-than expected margin.

“It all comes back to whether or not there’s an agreement reached. I don’t know if there’s going to be,” said Steve Shute, a city councilman in Gardner, Kan., and Tea Party activist.

“The longer this delays, to find results, the greater risk there is that Kansas turns blue or purple,” said Shute, who’s been acting as a moderator between conservatives and the campaigns of Roberts and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Ever since Democratic nominee Chad Taylor was removed from the ballot, giving Orman a one-on-one shot at toppling the GOP senator, the Roberts campaign has been parading Republican establishment and Tea Party figures through the state to help boost the struggling Roberts.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) campaigned for him last week and he nabbed the endorsement of rising conservative star Ben Carson on Tuesday. Sources also tell The Hill that Roberts bringing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in to stump for him next month, another figure with serious conservative clout.

But for disaffected Tea Partyers in the state, it might not be enough. Many were livid over Palin’s decision to campaign for Roberts, saying she should have reached out to grassroots supporters beforehand.

The endorsements, they say, won’t convince them Roberts is worth saving. Conservatives want to secure a number of commitments from the campaigns of both Roberts and Brownback, who faces his own tough reelection fight.

The Wednesday gathering will follow a two-hour-long meeting and conference call Friday that took place between junior-level representatives from Brownback’s campaign, Roberts’s campaign, state party executive director Clay Barker and about 10 conservative activists and Tea Party leaders, organized by the state party chairman at the request of Shute.

“We talked through a lot of issues, a lot of items, and it was for the most part civil, cordial and, I think, constructive,” Shute said of the Friday meeting. 

In large part, the Tea Party’s demands center on the investigation launched by a Kansas medical ethics board into Wolf’s controversial postings of patient X-Rays and off-color commentary to his Facebook page, which helped sink his campaign when the details of the posts and the investigation were leaked to the press. Conservatives believe the leaks and the probe were politically motivated, and an inappropriate use of a state agency to knock out a political candidate.

“They’ve just done some nasty, ugly, backhanded stuff here and things they shouldn’t be doing, and it’s a frightful despotism,” Rob Wood, another conservative activist engaged in the negotiations, told The Hill.

Shute declined to confirm the parameters of the demands from conservatives, but conversations with members of both wings of the party indicate that they include, but aren’t limited to, Brownback intervening to dismiss the ethics investigation into Wolf.

Conservatives are also demanding Anne Hodgdon, a member of the state organization that launched the investigation — and who conservatives believe not only triggered the investigation but leaked the news of it to the press —be removed from her post and barred from ever working again in any state agency.

In addition, they’re calling for the resignation of top Kansas GOP officials and for the state party to adopt a resolution declaring that if Roberts doesn’t complete all six years of his next term, Wolf would be named his replacement. And they want Kansas to institute a runoff primary, as well as for state party leaders to agree to meet more often with conservatives.

One of the Brownback representatives engaged in the Friday talk also met with Shute on Tuesday for lunch to continue discussing a potential compromise.

Privately, members of the Brownback and Roberts campaigns and state party officials have scoffed at the list of demands, which they see as at best baseless and at worst illegal, like the call for Brownback to call off the investigation. 

But Kansas conservatives warn they should heed their demands, lest Roberts lose the race due to dissatisfaction within the base. 

Wood said conservatives are “outraged” at what he called the “nuclear options” used by the establishment in Mississippi and Kansas to defend incumbents facing primary challenges. 

He declined to confirm any planned or past meetings, but did say he and others have expressed their concerns to the campaigns and want an answer soon — or else.

“We’re giving [the Roberts campaign] every opportunity to win this race if they want it, but they’re running out of time,” said Wood. “If they get it done by the end of this week we could hit the ground and get it done.” 

Roberts’s staff and even the senator himself have been reaching out to Tea Party activists in the state with personal phone calls.

“Like any campaign, we have been actively reaching out to grassroots leaders across the state,” said Roberts campaign manager Corry Bliss, who noted the prominent endorsements and said conservatives are “rallying” around Roberts.

“We are all united on the most important issue of this election, making sure Republicans gain control of the Senate — and that can’t happen without reelecting Pat Roberts.”

Some activists in the state, however, aren’t convinced.

“Here in the state of Kansas we are still mightily peeved at Pat Roberts, his staff and everybody on the campaign,” Kansas Tea Party supporter Chuck Henderson told The Hill during a Saturday phone conversation.

Henderson said conservatives feel that they were “abused badly during the entire campaign” because Roberts only showed a fleeting interest in their concerns when it was clear their frustration with him could jeopardize his hold on his seat.

“And now people are beginning to get phone calls from staffers begging us to come in and help him out,” Henderson scoffed.

He added, in disbelief, “And after all of the meanness and nastiness, for Sarah to show up and just declare the Tea Party is supporting him?” 

Some have begun to express a begrudging willingness to support Roberts if control of the Senate comes down to Kansas.

Henderson said conservatives see Orman, the independent, as a clear “liberal Democrat, and the risk of Republicans losing the Senate could cause conservatives to “hold our nose and vote for Roberts.” He said that, regardless, he “will not lift a finger for him” to get out the vote.

If Kansas isn’t key to Senate control, however, Henderson said there’s no question conservatives will stay home.

“Our consideration is, if Republicans don’t need him [to hold the Senate], to let him swing in the wind,” he said.

This post was updated at 7:47 p.m.

Tags Kansas Kansas Senate Pat Roberts Pat Roberts Tea party Ted Cruz
See all Hill.TV See all Video