U.S. Senator Pat Roberts defeated a Tea-Party backed challenger -- who happens to be President Barack Obama’s second cousin -- in Kansas’s Republican primary, handing the limited-government movement its latest loss in this year’s campaign.
With all precincts reporting, Roberts had 48 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Milton Wolf, according to the Associated Press tally. Two other candidates split the remaining ballots cast in yesterday’s contest.
Roberts, 78, is the fifth Republican senator to stave off a Tea Party-inspired primary challenge this year. His race, though, ended up being “a little closer than it should have been,” given Roberts’s cash advantage and stumbles by Wolf, 43, said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
“It demonstrates that Roberts isn’t all that strong a candidate, and maybe a stronger candidate could have taken him on,” Loomis said. Wolf, a radiologist, wasn’t “able to convince people that he was a serious alternative,” he said.
In his victory speech last night, Roberts called on Kansas Republicans to unite “behind a common and vital cause,” as the party nationally seeks a Senate majority.
“Republicans in Kansas and nationally cannot afford the kind of intra-party fratricide that we have seen recently,” he told supporters in Overland Park, Kansas. “We can’t afford to waste scarce resources and energy tearing ourselves apart.”
Seeking a fourth term, Roberts is in strong position to win November’s general election in a state Obama twice lost by double digits. Though Wolf also may have been favored, his nomination would have cast more doubt on the Republican prospects for holding the seat.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the 100-member Senate, and not having to devote national party resources to the Kansas race will help that effort. Analysts rate Democrats the underdogs in maintaining three seats they now hold -- in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- and the party is defending several other seats rated as toss-ups.
Republican incumbents who beat back earlier Tea Party-backed bids to oust them in Senate primaries this year were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Candidates supported by Tea Party groups also failed to win the Republican nominations for an open Senate seat in Georgia and a Democratic-held one in North Carolina.
Tea Party-backed candidates have captured just one Republican Senate nomination this year -- for an open seat in Nebraska -- and the movement’s last chance comes in Tennessee’s primary tomorrow. State Representative Joe Carr is counting on Tea Party support to derail Senator Lamar Alexander, a former governor who served as education secretary in President George H.W. Bush’s cabinet.
The Tea Party’s one major victory was the upset by little-known college professor David Brat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s June 10 primary.
In Kansas, Wolf had trouble making headway against Roberts after news reports surfaced in February that he’d posted graphic X-rays of gunshot-wound victims to his Facebook page, in some cases making macabre comments about the images.
“People are a little creeped out by his Facebook postings,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
The incident, which Robert’s campaign spotlighted in campaign ads, was especially damaging to Wolf because “it happened before anybody knew who he was,” Duffy said.
Even so, polls showed the primary tightening in its final days as Wolf -- whose mother is a cousin of Obama’s late maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham -- depicted Roberts as a product of unpopular Washington who had lost touch with everyday Kansans.
In a July interview with Kansas radio station KCMO, Roberts provided fodder for such attacks when he said, “Every time I get an opponent -- I mean, every time I get a chance -- I’m home.”
The New York Times reported in February that Roberts lists his address for voter registration purposes as a house in Dodge City belonging to two donors, telling the newspaper that he stays there when he’s in the area. Roberts joked that he has “full access to the recliner.”
Questions about whether he resided in Indiana contributed to six-term Senator Richard Lugar’s loss to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party-backed candidate, in that state’s 2012 Republican primary. Mourdock lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the general election, one of the outcomes that spurred the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented groups to take a more active role opposing Tea Party-aligned candidates in this year’s Republican primaries.
Roberts, in his final pitches to voters, cast himself as “a trusted and tested conservative who gets results.”
Wolf ultimately failed to “generate the energy that it usually takes to defeat an incumbent,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
“Wolf didn’t do himself any favors by stumbling,” Gonzales said. “He might have caused some people to pause who otherwise might have made an investment in the race.”
Wolf’s campaign raised $1.1 million and had $95,000 in cash on hand as of July 16, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks campaign spending.
Roberts had raised $4.7 million, with $1.5 million in cash on hand as of the same date, according to the group.
Roberts was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, and got financial support from groups including the American College of Radiology, the American Hospital Association and the National Rifle Association.
In November he will face Democrat Chad Taylor, a local district attorney who won his party’s primary yesterday. Taylor had less than $2,000 in cash on hand as of July 16.
Businessman Greg Orman is running as an independent, and he had $363,000 in cash on hand as of the same date.
As Roberts turns his attention to the general election, turmoil surrounds another leading Kansas Republican, Governor Sam Brownback. Though Brownback, a former U.S. senator seeking a second gubernatorial term, handily won his primary yesterday against a sole opponent, more than 100 prominent state Republicans last month endorsed the Democratic nominee, state Representative Paul Davis.
The group bills itself “Republicans for Kansas Values” and are protesting sweeping budget cuts enacted under Brownback, including to education and state highway programs. Brownback’s “extreme agenda makes Kansas look intolerant and backward,” the group says.
Two of Kansas’s four U.S. House members -- all Republicans -- also survived primary challenges.
Representative Mike Pompeo easily thwarted a comeback bid by Todd Tiahrt in the state’s 4th congressional district. Pompeo was elected to the seat in 2010 when Tiahrt vacated it to run unsuccessfully for the Senate seat Brownback gave up.
In the state’s 1st congressional district, two-term Representative Tim Huelskamp narrowly defeated Gulf War veteran Alan LaPolice, a former local school superintendent.