Saturday, November 01, 2014

Roberts primary race puts GOP voters in a tough spot

6/18/2014

Milton Wolf is right — in more ways than one.

Not only is the Kansas City-area radiologist on the far-right end of the political spectrum — he bills himself as “the conservative candidate for U.S. Senate” — he also is correct in his assessment of Republican primary opponent Pat Roberts’ vulnerability. Incumbent Roberts, who has represented Kansas in Washington for more than 30 years, isn’t as invincible as the GOP establishment and his own campaign might hope.

Milton Wolf is right — in more ways than one.

Not only is the Kansas City-area radiologist on the far-right end of the political spectrum — he bills himself as “the conservative candidate for U.S. Senate” — he also is correct in his assessment of Republican primary opponent Pat Roberts’ vulnerability. Incumbent Roberts, who has represented Kansas in Washington for more than 30 years, isn’t as invincible as the GOP establishment and his own campaign might hope.

Wolf pounced last week on a high-profile Tea Party victory over U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — an incumbent Virginia Republican — as proof Roberts could be defeated in the Kansas primary by a challenger savvy enough to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with Washington insiders and recent missteps — or at least the perception Roberts isn’t conservative enough.

The longtime legislator certainly deserves a tough challenge. He deserves to be questioned. He deserves close scrutiny of his record.

Many conservatives and Obamacare opponents are hung up on Roberts’ association with and support of Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary who took the most blame for the disastrous rollout of the federal health care program, but that’s not the only area where Roberts’ record should be examined. Remember, the Kansas senator served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2003-2007 and was a key figure behind the U.S. push to invade Iraq. Why hasn’t Roberts ever answered for that clear intelligence failure?

Perhaps because face-to-face interactions with Kansans are few and far between for the lawmaker.

As Wolf has asserted, Roberts hasn’t truly lived in the Sunflower State for decades, having moved to a home in Virginia long ago. The U.S. House and Senate don’t work like the Kansas Statehouse where legislators are expected to wrap up the session in 90 days or less. The climate in Washington is one of a Congress that appears to do little, but spends the whole year doing it. And while Roberts’ colleague U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, makes frequent trips back to the land of Oz (even when it isn’t an election year), Roberts is better known for posing next to Kansas highway signs in odd campaign stunts on the rare occasion he returns to the Midwest to press the flesh.

Wolf, who was charming in his visit to Ottawa earlier this year, is right to wonder who Roberts truly represents: the Kansans he left behind 30 years ago or the donors, deal-makers and lobbyists he sees every day in Washington?

Roberts puts Kansas Republicans in a tough spot. He clearly is out-of-touch with everyday voters (though he’s maintained his Dodge City drawl). But is supporting an outside-the-mainstream candidate like Wolf the answer?

Primary voters are notoriously more conservative than those who turnout only during the general election, so a Wolf win in August is conceivable. But then what? Wolf next would have to face the winner of the Democratic primary — presumably Chad Taylor, Shawnee County district attorney. And even though Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, is that really a risk the GOP wants to take?

Recall how the campaign of far-right Missouri Republican Todd Akin fell apart after he won the GOP primary in 2012. Members of the media largely gave Akin a free pass until he earned a spot on the Republican ticket — the same as Wolf so far — and then savaged him with the general election on the horizon. Akin dug his own grave and even the GOP lost the will to support him, giving his opponent Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent, a clear shot to victory.

As Republicans aim to retake the U.S. Senate this year, can they afford to lose a “safe” seat like Roberts’?

And what if Wolf wins? Does Kansas really want him as a senator just because voters were sick of the incumbent?

It’s an issue of principle versus pragmatism. Roberts probably shouldn’t be re-elected, but the alternative to sending him back to Washington doesn’t seem like much of option for mainstream Republicans either. If the players were different — say, Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general, or even Todd Tiahrt, former U.S. House member, challenging Roberts — the answer would be much simpler.

Instead, we have Roberts and Wolf.

It’s a difficult decision — made all the more tough by Roberts’ refusal so far to join Wolf in a public debate. Kansas Republican voters deserve to know who will better serve them in Washington before making their choices Aug. 5 at the ballot box. Even if one is right and the other is “more right,” we’re not sure if either is up to that challenge.

Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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